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Vignette 49/52. The Magic of Limits.

“What are the new restrictions?”

It’s become a normal question like “What are we doing today?”

After a few months of a merry-go-round of different levels of restrictions, we have gotten used to sudden changes in social distancing, closures, and driving. It was a dizzying spring and summer for a lot of people.

For us, limits mean an opportunity for creativity.

I love limits. Limits are at the heart of The Serenity Prayer: to accept the things that I cannot change and change the things that I can.

This is also at the heart of Stoicism, a philosophy that has guided our family over the years, and especially this year. We often forget the most important part of that prayer: the wisdom to know the difference.

It’s as if my family had been preparing for this for the last few years of living with our own set of restrictions – no internet, no electricity, no water, and at times, limited rainwater.

With these limits, we learn how to be efficient with our time, our available resources, and how to be creative with those available resources.

One of the restrictions that we have had since spring was driving days. We haven’t been able to drive on Mondays. We turned Mondays into another weekend day. A home day. If Chris needs to go down for internet, he walks for 40 minutes down the mountain and hitches a ride to town.

We do not spend one second on complaining about the limit. We immediately switch gears into planning and working with and around it.

Beaches are closed? It’s a good time to develop inner work practices at home?
No travel? We stay and save money and finish the bathrooms.
Classes are cancelled? How can we switch to zoom or keep connected? _
Strength club is cancelled? Let’s work out at home together.

And my kids have watched us use limits to our advantage, use limits as a point of curiosity, and pivot without overthinking.

Universities are all online for 2021? It’s ok, Mom, I will do a gap year and wait and see.
The job opportunities are scarce? It’s ok, Mom, I will start my own business.
Classes are cancelled? It’s ok, Mom, can you recommend some books I should read with this spare time? It’s ok, Mom, I wanted to work on my drawings…I wanted to work on my baking…I wanted to organize the house…I wanted to write…

I frequently give them activities with limits to stretch their imagination.

Our sofa was an island in the middle of lava. You can’t touch the floor. How can you get a banana from the kitchen?

We can only use two colours for this art exercise. How can use two colours to express this idea?

Sometimes too many choices lead to indecision or paralysis. When we can see limits as freeing, we understand how to apply our wisdom to know the difference.

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Vignette 48/52. Slow and steady.

Albert Einstein called it the eighth wonder of the world.

Compound interest. Exponential growth.

When I introduced this concept to the students, we began with the simple problem of would they rather receive a fixed amount of $325 at the end of one month or the option of an amount doubling starting with a penny. Most thought this was a trick and guessed the penny of course but then they wanted to figure out why so they kept doubling the amount for thirty days. $0.01, $0.02, $0.04, $0.08…

They were astonished at what they accumulated after 30 days.

We looked at the variables of time, interest rate and the principal amount. We manipulate these variables to see how fast or how slow money can grow.

Then we looked at the cost of borrowing, for example, credit card interest or mortgages. This is something new. Some had never really understood what a credit card is or why it is different than a debit card.

We play with amounts and I tell them how time is on their side. If they start early with a small amount and a decent interest rate, and over a large amount of time, they can accumulate a large amount.

This leads us to the theme of delayed gratification and instant gratification. The stable yet gradual curve of long and steady growth versus the volatile spiked curve that can lead to massive gains but also risk of massive losses.

Sequential learning is an important skill – to understand the sequence of events; to understand second, third, and even fourth effects of decisions.

Taking time to make decisions also means delayed gratification because we have to be methodical in our learning and our thinking. We have to understand before we take action. We have to be clear with our intentions.

This framework of compound interest can also be applied to habits which I talked about as we set up a goal commitment contract.

James Clear, author of my older kids’ current favourite book Atomic Habits, writes:

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.

When we look at the aggregate of marginal gains and adopt a philosophy of aiming for a the tiniest improvement in everything you do, we see a shift in a different direction take place. All of a sudden that penny has turned into hundreds of thousands of dollars or those extra 10, 15, 20 pounds have disappeared.

It is this that I want the kids to learn – the way of the tortoise. The beauty of slow and small movements. The consistent repetition of each step moving in the right direction.

The patience of the long game.

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Vignette 47/52. Stay Awhile.

I wake early and I sit in the same spot on the sofa.

I spend the very first moments sitting and sometimes I think that if I moved, I would break the spell.

I never knew a tree could cast a spell.

From over three decades living in the city, with occasional trips to parks, I was never enchanted by such quiet audacity. There were many beautiful encounters with trees in the North but none like this.

She was a gift from a friend grown from a seed. She was a little sapling that Mikey and I planted near our house. We wanted her to be close. To be able to love her through it – the process of getting used to the land and the elements. We didn’t have much luck with some other trees we planted.

But there must have been more than enough sun, more than enough water, more than enough space, and more than enough love.

I love her wildness. The wildness of a tree that comes into your living room like an unexpected but welcome guest. The wildness of a tree where the leaf is bigger than a small child.

Every morning I sit and she takes up more space, more of my view, more of my attention. She blurs the line of home and garden.

She is the tree of the Mary Oliver poem that I never met until now:

When I am among the trees
By Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world,
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

**


So she casts the spell to stay and I stay.

I stay long enough to imagine how easy it could be.

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Vignette 46/52. Scumbags and Superstars. Part Two.

If you have spent this year navigating school at home with your children, you will relate to this concept of the Scumbag and the Superstar.

I first wrote Part One in 2014.

After almost 23 years of parenting, you may assume that I understand how to be the most amazing mom in the world, that I have learned from all of my mistakes, that my experience allows me to avoid pitfalls and damaging my children’s sense of self. When you meet my children, you may think that I actually did a good job.

But to be honest, I am pretty sure there is a positive correlation between the amount of my scumbag moments and the average age of my children. There is less room for error in parenting when they can spell and understand big words.

Another positive correlation is the amount of time I work with the amount of scumbag moments. I went back to work full-time this year for the first time in almost 12 years.

It wasn’t a conscious choice. Like most of the biggest decisions in my life, my crossing threshold decisions, this door materialized in front of me and I decided to walk through it not knowing that a massive tightrope was waiting for me on the other side.

As I talked to the kids about my first year going back to the work, they had some feedback for me.

“It was strange having to make an appointment with you to talk about my progress.” Scumbag.

“It was nice to see you passionate about your work and less focused on your identity as a mom.” Um, Superstar?

“You were always busy with work this year.” Scumbag.

“Mom, you always had other projects as we grew up but you still always made time for us. This really wasn’t any different.” Superstar.

“I didn’t see much of a change except I had less tantrums when you taught me because I had classmates now.” Superstar moment… for her.

One daughter reflected, “We all had our own stuff to do but it was nice to come back together at the end of the day and talk about everything. You always stopped working to keep connecting with us at the end of the day.”

Superstar.

For my youngest, he was used to life with me all the time. Now he had to navigate learning with a new guide and with classmates whereas I still teach my other children.

When we were in Canada, he enjoyed time with me as I homeschooled him again, just the two of us. Looking back on this moment he told me, “Mom, I wish you could teach me too again.”

Scumbag.

As I re-read that post from 2014 and listened to my children in 2020, I finally noticed a pattern.

I don’t have to go to the other extreme and entertain them all day. I just have to build in a moment or two when I pay them undivided attention – through listening, doing a lesson, reading together, getting off the screens entirely. But with five children, a moment in time multiplies. Time becomes the most precious resource in my day.

One card game and then I have to finish my writing.

One chapter and then I have to send messages.

One conversation and then I need to go to sleep early.

One lesson and then I have to plan.

One coffee and then I have to train.

So I am keeping it simple for my family. To my kids: Choose one thing you need and I will be there. Grab my arm and make me look at you if you need me NOW. I promise that if you ask, I will be there. I get absorbed in my work, in my teaching, in my writing because I love it. One day you will know what that means to love to do something so much that the rest of the world falls away. You will be a scumbag to others while being a superstar for yourself. It’s ok. You can always try again. And you can remind those you love that yes, sometimes you have to make an appointment.

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Vignette 45/52. Crossing thresholds.

I remember the days when I used to hold my children’s hands as they crossed the street. Sometimes I still grab for their hand and realize that they are taller than me now and their hand is not where it once was – lower than mine – or my son ignores me and runs across the street before I can grab it and embarrass him.

They look at me funny as if I am having a senior moment.

But what they don’t see, what most people don’t see, is that I am holding their hand all the time, figuratively-speaking. As a parent, I feel like I am always crossing thresholds. Or bridges. Or tightropes.

Sometimes I am walking the child across only to return to the other side to receive another one coming off a different bridge. At other times, I watch them go ahead of me, cross on their own, and keep walking while I stay where I am. (This happens mostly at airports and on actual bridges.)

When you have many children, you soon realize there are always milestones that occur concurrently. They become so normal and ordinary, I forget that they are huge shifts that take place within the individual child. With the first child, there is novelty. With the fifth child, unfortunately, it’s old news.

I recently asked my 11 year old son about his 12 year old molars because I was curious to see if any were loose or potentially falling out. It was strange that none had even begun to fall out yet.

He said, “Mom, two fell out months ago.”
I asked, “Did you tell me about them?”
He said, “I can’t remember.”

I felt bad I missed it but he didn’t seem to mind. (The last big parenting fail was realizing we forgot to teach him how to ride a bike when he was nine years old. He forgave us when he realized he could learn in fifteen minutes.)

The threshold I remember most are the tightropes over raging rivers. The ones where I am on the other side already and I have to coach the child how to cross because this particular threshold should be difficult in magnitude to ensure exponential growth.

This is the one where they have to make an adult choice that could change their life, the one where they have to make a decision about the type of person they want to become.

Some adults never cross this one and live a life unfulfilled. They wake up one morning and are full of regret using words like should’ve and could’ve. With this threshold, there are no crossroads where the paths seem the same. The choice is to take a risk, cross through danger, teetering on a single rope or stay put on the shore where safety is guaranteed.

In my life, there have been many tightropes that I have avoided, fallen from, and crossed. The first step always takes courage. I tell my children that there is such a thing as muscle memory so after the first time they get themselves across, they will remember how to balance and more importantly, they will remember that they were able to do it.

Launch your first business. Apply for that program, internship, or job. Begin and commit to that relationship. Go all in.

I miss the days when I just needed to get safely across the road or when I just needed to be close by as they balanced across a log over a small creek. I was responsible for them. Now I know the best way to guide them is being responsible for myself – for continuing to walk across my own tightropes. They watch my technique, they watch my process, and above all, they watch what happens when I fall and when I make it across.

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Vignette 44/52. Christmas.

It’s weird to say that this whole year felt like Christmas.

But as a mama, it was an unexpected gift. For years I had begun to prepare myself emotionally for the time when my children would leave and maybe not even be together for the holidays. When AJ decided not to come to Costa Rica for Christmas in 2018, it felt like our time together would be fewer and far between.

Then everything changed this year. We received a bonus gift of the seven of us spending more time together than we had in four years.

Every morning, during our walk, Chris and I would list all the things we were grateful for and the number one thing would be that we were together during this time. We appreciated this unexpected gift at a time when it was difficult to be optimistic.

This year we did all the things we normally did at Christmas time. We watched movies, we baked cookies, we crafted, and we had meals together. There were also mild tantrums over chores and clothes but even those felt precious and nostalgic.

What I observed most about myself was that I never became attached to the situation or longed for the past when they were little. I knew this was nothing short of a miracle. I knew this was a limited time offer. I knew that Chris and I had won a small jackpot to spend frivolously. I knew, eventually, like the ebb and flow of the ocean, life would pull them back out and send them on their own journeys once again.

Just like Christmas, I treated it like a special opportunity to reflect and to be present. I took my time seeing them in the moment of their lives today and not who they were or who they ought to be. I sat with them watching their favourite shows instead of reading a book on the side. I lectured less and listened more. I focused on myself so they could focus on themselves.

Today we are all together again. As things become uncertain, I no longer take anything for granted. I know I am not exempt from the hands of fate that could make today the last time. As I see them all pile on the bed together to watch a movie and eat gummy bears, it is like they are little again.

And as much as I want to hold on to this moment, I let it go knowing Life keeps moving and there will be other Christmas moments if I choose to see them.

Wishing everyone a happy holidays…from all of us.

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Vignette 43/52. No is a complete sentence.

It’s Christmas Eve and the five kids put on their running shoes about ten minutes ago. As they headed out door, Chris asked, “Where are you guys going?”

They look at us and say, “We booked the tennis courts for a friendly sibling king or queen of the court. See you later!”

We are in a hotel room in San Jose. They are excited to exchange their Secret Santa Sibling gifts tonight. Parent gifts are for Christmas morning. The kids started this new tradition last year which was our first Christmas all together in Costa Rica.

Here is a screenshot from one of my old blog posts from December 2009:

We still get asked this question a lot.

A big secret is that I say “no” a lot without much explanation. In addition to that, I have solid boundaries complete with a crocodile-infested moat and high castle walls manned by snipers which in the past have appeared to seem aggressive to people on the outside.

After having Q, I have been protective of our family time and of our rhythm. I know what makes me have an abundance of energy and I know what sucks it. It’s a simple formula. We need time for ourselves and we need time together.

We have also had to say NO to events, get-togethers, parties, talks, and all sorts of interesting gatherings to preserve my sanity, my energy, and to work on our relationships. As I set boundaries and priorities with my time, the kids learn how to do it themselves.

One of our biggest priorities was to provide an environment and several opportunities for our kids to become close. We envisioned a time when they would be best friends and be there for each other instead of bickering about who gets to sit by the window in the car.

This meant creating traditions, family activities, resolving conflict slowly and with consideration, and paying attention to each other’s needs. It’s as though each of us is an instrument and we learn how to harmonize together while also celebrating our unique sounds.

We spent the last three days tucked away in a rented house on a hill overlooking the ocean on the other side of Costa Rica. It was a very intentional decision: a Christmas gift for our family to dedicate time together, just the seven of us.

It is the same formula I have used since Q was born – time to tune our own instruments while rediscovering how to play together. This was scheduled time to recharge in a different location and to relax without the obligation of doing anything. I can blog if I want to. I can read. I can lie in the pool. I can do walking lunges. I can eat ice cream for breakfast. I can sit with each child. I can watch them be together. I can appreciate that these moments are what every parent wishes for their family.

As they head out to the tennis courts and Chris and I watch them walk away together – laughing, arms around each other, chatting. We look at each other and we shake our heads thinking the same thing:

We did it.

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Vignette 42/52. Hills.

I still hate running hills.

We have a hill near our house. And of course, my husband felt it was perfect for hill running.

There is minimal talking when we run hills. It’s not fun. The sun is hot. Looking up at the hill, you know how your legs and butt will burn. You savour every breath as you slowly walk down the hill, already prepping mentally for the next hill.

I remember the first time AJ and I ran up the hill back in March. We were huffing and puffing. We had to take our time to bring our heart rate down before attempting another one. I dreaded each hill session for that first month. It sucked.

It took some adjustment for AJ to live with us again at that time. And a lot of patience. She not only had to grow accustomed to living with her parents again but also living in the jungle. There are bugs. AJ does not like bugs. More specifically, AJ’s legs do not like bugs.

One night, after a few weeks with us, she burst into my room and had a mini-meltdown. It was night time and a big bug flew into her hair. I tried to hold back but I just couldn’t . I asked her, “What lesson do you think the universe is trying to teach you?” She screamed in frustration and I howled in laughter.

After awhile, I watched her settle into a routine. The foundation of her routine was the same foundation that her siblings and Chris and I established during the lockdown. I remember how Chris and I purposely avoided consuming too much outside information. I remember how we decided to focus on the one thing that we knew would enhance our quality of life no matter what.

We focused on moving our bodies. Chris and I adhered to a training practice six times a week. The rest of the kids worked out and moved together at regularly scheduled times.

Twice a week, Chris, AJ, and I ran hills together. (Eventually, Joey and Frankie would join us.).

We started with only five sets in March with ample rest in between. We kept it up for the next seven months together. By late summer, we were at 9-10 sets with less rest but still comfortable in breathing.

Incrementally, showing up to the hill each week and adding a set slowly, we made progress. Our bodies became stronger. Our endurance increased. Our mental discipline was sharper. There were days when we didn’t feel like it but as soon as we put on our running shoes, we knew we had to go and get it done.

Running hills teaches patience and perseverance. Instead of staying at the top, you deliberately go back down to do it all over again. We all start to not only accept the challenges but learn to embrace them eventually – the hills, the change in lifestyle, living with parents.

In the end, they help us become more resilient so that we can face anything the universe and flying cockroaches decide to teach us.

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Vignette 41/52. About.

I FINALLY updated my about page. I wrote a little vignette about me.

I take you on a little roundabout journey. There are references to dolphins, spatial awareness, and Alice in Wonderland. It’s very, well, me.

There is also an uncomfortably large selfie that I took today.

I am not sure I did it right but I wanted you to know what’s important to me and what I want to do for the rest of my life.

If you have been following this blog since the beginning, thanks for being on this wild journey with me.

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Vignette 40/52. Words.

“Mom, what’s an adverb again?”

“A word that describes a verb – how something is done. For example, he walked ‘lazily’ is different than he walked ‘briskly.’”

“What’s a good adverb for pooing?

“I need to think about that one.”

As a homeschooler, most people assume everything I plan for the kids has an educational component. But anyone who encourages self-directed learning at home, knows that if the kids even receive a whiff of a contrived activity, they cross their arms and look bored. They would rather be presented with a lesson without any sneakiness. They deserve that respect. But I get a pass with stories. They actually love to try to find lessons embedded in my stories as they get older. They love metaphor.

They also love mad libs.

Mad libs are one of our favourite activities. They all know it’s a teaching tactic. My kids normally hate anything intentionally “educational” like flash cards unless they come up with the idea for “flashy” flash cards like my son created. With mad libs, they don’t mind because they are allowed to use booger and hairy armpits in the same paragraph as writing practice.

I let them download the mad lib app that could be played offline after we ran out of the physical paper pads of mad libs. We have many mad lib nights at home, and especially during the early days of the pandemic. We played with the meaning and context of words. I banned words like “quickly,” “dog,” and eventually, “poo” because of overuse. They were ok when I placed parameters because they knew I was trying to teach them, I really wanted to hear witty writing.

Could we make a whole mad lib paragraph written in metaphor? Could we be completely sarcastic? Could we write in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan terms? And fine, make it gross, but could you make it gross AND clever?

Sometimes Q, Mikey and I would be howling with laughter because we managed to be inventive and use “hairy upper lip” in just the right way. And an educational side effect that I didn’t foresee? Q’s willingness to read and write for the first time.

Because I didn’t intend to “educate” – in that meaning of forcing and coercion – but insisted on playing with them and was interested myself, it paradoxically turned into quite the lesson.

It was a lesson in finding the right words at the right moment; being clear with definitions; introducing metaphor and double-entendre; allowing curiosity and creativity to become more than buzzwords; and finding humour in the most unexpected combination of words even when the rest of the world fell into panic.

When my children look back on reading and writing, they won’t remember phonics books or painful tests, they will remember how they learned the magic and power of words creating through an “enthusiastic burrito” and “pooing thunderously.”

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