Youngest: “Mom, your boob is almost touching your pants.”
Me: “Buddy, they’re high-waisted pants!”
Oldest: “Or low-waisted boobs. Right Mom?”
Ah yes. A sure sign of aging – gravity, loose skin, and of course, comments from the kids. Normally, they roll their eyes at my memory loss (“Where’s my phone?!…Oh, it’s in my back pocket.”)
But today, my friend Yvonne made my day while cursing me a little.
She thought I was one of my daughters. And followed it with a half-joking half-serious, “Damn you.” I graciously accepted the compliment while silently sending my mom, my grandmas, my great-grandmas, etc. gratitude for the genetics.
I honestly don’t “feel the forties.” Maybe because I don’t own a mirror and only get reminded occasionally by my children.
Maybe it’s because I feel really good. We have been cooking at home, eating fresh fruits and pita (coconut water), getting enough sleep (going to bed with the sun and waking up with the howlers), drinking tons of water, and being consistent with the thing that I have the least will power for generally: exercise.
My kids have been rock stars with their strength programs and the small ones doing their climbing, hiking, jumping on the neighbor’s trampoline out in our jungle community.
But I have resisted. It always takes me 3 weeks to actually feel the energetic benefits of strength training and to see myself get stronger.
I have started to snatch again with the 12kg kettlebell. I was nervous to try again. I couldn’t remember the last time I did it. I had to check my training journal to remember. I haven’t snatched since 2015. It’s quite a technical skill and I was afraid I would hurt myself trying again five years later.
Amazingly, my body remembered from just a few cues from Chris. It reflexively knew where to brace and how to breathe. (Thanks babe, I get it now.)
If you look at the journal, you will notice gaps in dates. Those are the times when I stopped listening to my husband or developed an inclination for dance or soccer or lying in child’s pose while I called it “mama’s yoga time.”
I don’t like Strength training without goals or a purpose. I can walk without one or write without one but when it comes to strength training in particular, I need to be efficient with time and energy since it is my second least favourite thing. (See yesterday for my least favourite thing. Although I can outsource that job, strength training has to be done my me.).
“Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens to the which our wills are gardeners.” ― William Shakespeare, Othello
Strength of body plays such a key role in how I function but it takes a large degree of will power. What motivates me is the energetic kick I receive to do what I do. At 41, I am looking ahead to quality of life. I want to be able to get off the toilet and reach up to the grab my favourite book.
This time at home has reminded me of how important basic movements are and to take my time perfecting the little things that in the end will improve the whole.
I may have low-waisted boobs but at least I am strong enough to snatch a 12kg Kettlebell.
The older kids sometimes have flashback memories and think it was just a dream.
I also used to bake fresh bread every day.
When I cooked, Chris was working six days, sometimes seven days a week. He was beginning his new career in personal training after leaving the IT department of a mutual fund company. I had just had our second child and decided to stay home.
For a few years, I did it. And then came the third and then the fourth. Then one day, in our new home, I made the declaration:
I will no longer be cooking dinner.
I sat down and went to sleep on the couch with the latest newborn. The kids promptly figured out how to assemble a makeshift dinner without cooking: apples, leftover popcorn, and cheese. People often ask me how I survived those years with littles and Chris working.
Apples, popcorn, and cheese.
If I have to cook lunch, there will be minimal cooking involved and if there is cooking, I will only use one pot or pan to heat up leftovers.
When Chris travels, the girls rotate cooking and the boy helps. The last time I HAD to cook dinner, it was a rice noodle dish on which I had sprinkled a dash of contempt and a pinch of irritation. The kids choked it down and one whispered to the other, “It tastes bitter and salty…if you know what I mean.”
So that was the last dish I cooked in this house.
I also tend to cook the same thing if I have to cook. I man not a fan of variety. I can have a fried egg with rice for dinner every day. I can also have it for breakfast. And for lunch. Pretty sure I once made it for every meal in one week in a time of desperation. My kids know this too. If they leave it to mom, she will buy four dozen eggs and a bag of rice and call it a day.
Today I watch my kids make their food and I am so happy that they are happy doing it. #5 announces he is making a smoothie and asks who wants some. I watch him be creative. He was once the pancake master and made pancakes for a month straight using different flours and ratios. (The yuca one turned into dumplings.)
One day I will probably cook again. When it’s just for me. When there is no expectation. When I can experiment. I took a raw vegan cooking class from friends of mine which reinvigorated some of my curiosity with food. And then when I went home, I realized I had to cook for six people and I turned into Kitchen Eeyore again. It’s no fun to spend hours prepping and dehydrating bushels of kale, a hundred bananas, papayas, and rambutan only for it to be inhaled in thirty seconds.
I think it’s the prep work that gets to me. All that chopping and blending and marinating. I never learned how to see it as a meditation like my husband does because I always had the kids with me while I cooked. I was either wearing one or had one on my hip. There was one crying at my feet or one banging the pots and pans.
And for those “parent” books that say let your child help cook? Yes I have done that and then I am busy teaching and watching carefully the use of knives and making sure a food fight doesn’t ensue while I make sure nothing burns which always ends up happening and we order pizza. It’s not fun to “include” all of them when you have four under the age of six starving and now you want to ask them to help chop the carrots?
I think you have to choose your battles. Lunch time prep – a lighter fare with little sandwiches and cut up veggies – yes, they can help. Dinner time when all my will power and patience is gone from holding it together most of the day? No. Get out of the kitchen little people and watch that show you have been begging to watch all day.
I watch my husband cook and he is all Zen, playing his “cooking” music and most times he is alone in the kitchen unless there is a child, now that they are grown, who can actually help him. I am grateful I have partner who finds his joy in cooking, It truly is a meditation for him.
Not for me. I still have kitchen PTSD. The kitchen had been a battle zone – “don’t go into the pantry,” “don’t open the fridge,” “stop waving the knife at your sister,” “what did you just eat off the floor?!?”
Baking was different because it was always early in the morning. I would have just fed the baby – there was always a baby – and put them back down to sleep. It was that awkward time of 4:30am when there would be no point going back to sleep so I started to bake.
Baking is precise. You follow a recipe, measure it out, and voila, you have exactly what you thought you’d get. Most of the time anyway. I liked that. And the ingredients were simpler. A flour, an egg, maybe butter or milk and sugar. I liked not having to be creative or improvise or figure out how to stretch a recipe that said 2 servings to 8 servings having only enough ingredients for 4 servings. Ugh.
I could be exhausted and knead the dough and let it rise. I could mindlessly follow a recipe and mix. I made chocolate chip sweet potato muffins so much that it became a ritual for me. And then the smell of baked goods in the oven somehow made everyone float down the stairs with a smile on their face – even the other Eeyores of my house.
Bread making also became a thing for one of my children. At three years old, it was the only thing she looked forward to in life. THE ONLY THING. Every other thing led to a tantrum or a battle of wills. But she was mesmerized by the act of making bread. From watching the yeast do its thing to kneading the dough to shaping it into different forms – rolls, spirals, loaves, bagels. She still loves to bake. The other day she invited friends over to make meringues because the sun was out. (Translation: Meringues require constant mixing which means solar power usage which means it is best to do it when the sun is out.)
It was our time together. And baking is an easy thing to include the littles. There is no chopping. There is adding and mixing and sometimes rolling into balls for cookies and then maybe decorating cakes and cupcakes. Much more relaxing for me than hot cast iron handles and sharp knives. And don’t get me started on the potato peeler and the cheese grater.
But during this time together, I am re-framing cooking. Slowly. I am spending more time in the kitchen during dinner prep – not actually prepping of course but sitting on the bar stool watching. I haven’t sat and watched in a long time. Watched the dance – the movement of my kids knowing where to be, how to crush a garlic, and how to check on the onions on the stove so they are just “sweating” and not caramelizing. They dance and sway and say things like “Excuse me” and “Can you taste this and tell me if it’s ok please?” So calm. So polite. So different than the screaming babies of my days of kitchen pasts.
Thank you babe for teaching our kids to cook with love and patience. Thank you to all the kitchen mentors in their lives – past and present – who have shown them a new way of looking at food…and healing them of some of the original trauma of eating fried eggs and rice for a week.
For some background information on what the Psalms are if you didn’t grow up singing them as part of religious practice, read the Cliff’s Notes. Yes there are Cliff’s Notes for the Bible!
Growing up Catholic, I loved the part of mass when the psalms were read and sung. I could feel the emotion, the praise of something bigger than us. Although I no longer practice, I still love the psalms. Or maybe the idea of them. The Psalms are a mixed bag – grief, fury, rage, praise, jubilation. According to the Cliff’s Notes, “In Psalms, the longings, the hopes, the sorrows, and the disappointments of individual worshipers find their clearest expression.”
And of course, they need to be sung.
Psalms are songs that describe the full repertoire of emotion of life. (And I thought you could only find that through The Bee Gees – true poets of life’s ups and downs.)
At a time when we are easily filled with despair and cynicism, an unfortunate condition that our species tends to gravitate to, we need a little more song, some lyrical poetry that expresses our humanity.
I am starting off this week with praise. Praise for Pooh Bear.
This all started with Winnie-The-Pooh, the book I am reading aloud to the kids right now. In the first Chapter, he is singing the praises of a simple thing. Instead of the Song of David, The Song of Pooh. It has a good ring to it. Pooh is making up songs, inspired by what he is experiencing in the moment.
Sometimes mamas need to shout an alleluia and an amen. I recently raised my hands to the heavens in praise and song after cleaning our office/pantry/library space. It needed a good overhaul. #1, #3 and I tackled it with perseverance and patience.
I have done, and still do, the gratitude thing. But gratitude is different than praise. There is something quieter about gratitude as we whisper “thanks” after dodging a bullet while praise is a full-bellied shout from the mountaintop. Sometimes we need to a good rejoicing. The term is “sing the praises” not “whisper the praises” or casually converse the praises” or “bitch the praises.”
It’s amazing how singing out the words changes the tone. Nagging instead becomes a melodic chant. There are many ways to incorporate song: singing out instructions; singing an observation; singing to break the silence (or the noise) of the jungle at home; and singing my praises for the little things like a Tupperware of cold papaya in the fridge ready for my smoothie bowl. (A fridge that didn’t exist four weeks ago so we collectively sing praises for the fridge. We’ve set the praise bar low, Chris and I.)
What is the difference between appreciation and praise? There is a sense of worship associated with the latter; a raising up in exultation. Praise is appreciation on steroids.
To exult a part of creation is a psalm. I don’t exult enough. Do you? When is the last time you exulted something or someone out loud? With or without an organ accompaniment?
Many modern parenting books warn against praising your children. They say, “Be neutral and pay more attention to their effort and process.” Yes I get it. Behaviour might be then motivated by receiving the praise as opposed to simply doing something for its intrinsic value.
But the word praise has its roots in value and price. Before we associate praise with God in the late 14th century, the word came from the Latin word pretium – “reward, prize, value, worth.” Think appraise.
If we stick to the other type of praise, I see how it can go to your head. Giving or receiving praise then becomes an uncomfortable deed, one that feels should be saved for the gods/God, the divine.
But what about a surprise chocolate cake prepared with love or that daily cup of coffee made by the love of your life? Can we sing our praises without second guessing the divinity of those small doses of perfection?
If singing praises can mean singing what we value most right now, then we can find God in the small things. If God is not your word, how about Love?
Where else would I find God/Love but in the way my son gently leans on my shoulder or in the hover of a hummingbird?
To sing a song to Life herself is a celebration of the Mystery.
Pooh Bear sings praises to a Cloud:
How sweet to be a Cloud Floating in the Blue! Every little cloud Always sings aloud.
A simple psalm acknowledging the sweetness of a Cloud. Cloud with a capital C. A song that even David would praise.
Are we afraid to sing praises because we will be disappointed if we discover the truth? That the object of our praise was not deserving, that we overestimated its vale? Or maybe we risk committing to beauty that could fade or become invisible to others?
It’s time to throw caution to the wind and learn to sing, learn to exult. It doesn’t have to be a full on Kirk Franklin gospel song or a lyrical poem with the totality of creation placed on a pedestal.
Think a little less grandiose.
What if we lived our life in praise of the ordinary? In praise of that cat that sneaks downstairs in the wee hours of the morning to cuddle on my lap? In praise of the clear counter space? In praise of subtle yet fleeting breeze that happened to blow by me in the middle of the tropical noonday heat? In praise of the stack of books I love to look at and will eventually read? In praise of the 4:30am waking? In praise of finding a handwritten note? In praise of homemade pesto on homemade pasta? In praise of that podcast that made me stop to think about how I want to curate this blog and all the other information I have accumulated about learning and having my children at home and the life we have designed that is so different than I thought it would be?
You might think that I am overdoing it a little. I don’t think so.
What harm could there be in living a life of lyrical poetry or at the very least, a pinch of optimism?
But I am not asking for a pinch, the pinch that I can find in my gratitude journal or a side remark of appreciation for passing me the salt. I am looking for the deluge – the praise, the full and unwavering jubilant song we humans are more than capable of singing. We just forgot that we could and that we should.
To what or to whom would you sing praises today?
My Book of Hours: The Remix is feeling more like a psalm book as well. Although I probably won’t be recording an album any time soon singing the praises. A FREE online class is on the way. Sign up here to receive more information.
I posted this little piece of a recent Book of Hours entry a few days ago.
Here is the rest of it:
Lately we have been drawing and painting as a family and I find quotes that match the words and images. We have had a couple of art afternoons when I lead the kids with prompts and they create something. With the one above, I gave the kids a series of instructions including: write down any word, draw three lines, draw three triangles, draw a rectangle, draw something from nature, etc. After I give the last instruction, we show each other what we created.
A few days later I stumbled on this quote and felt it matched the word “craft” perfectly. We tend to think of craft as part of an arts and crafts a type of activity complete with construction paper, glitter, and glue. I like to think of arts and crafts differently.
Arts + Crafts = Creative Making.
How do we craft a life? More specifically, are you crafting your leisure?
“Leisure” is derived from the Latin word licere, “to be allowed.”
What are you giving yourself permission to do, to create, to become?
The Book of Hours process has been my way of allowing myself to do my two favourite things as an act of caring and inspiration: handwriting and drawing.
”Leisure” has become Synonymous with lazy or lack of ambition. But it has been proven that deep work needs to be interrupted with periods of relaxation and slow contemplative activities.
Leisure should be taken seriously.
“Leisure,” German philosopher Josef Pieper wrote, “is not the same as the absence of activity… or even as an inner quiet. It is rather like the stillness in the conversation of lovers, which is fed by their oneness.”
We can deliberately plan our leisure time rather than defaulting to distracting ourselves when we “have a moment.” We can craft those blocks of time by adding activities that encourage “deep play,” a term used by Diane Ackerman in her book of the same name. She writes in Deep Play:
In rare moments of deep play, we can lay aside our sense of self, shed time’s continuum, ignore pain, and sit quietly in the absolute present, watching the world’s ordinary miracles.
This type of leisure, the type where we lose the sense of self and time; when we are fully absorbed in this moment – I find this in my blocked off times of writing and in creating entries for my Book of Hours. It’s a sacred time, this deep playing with words and images and I have felt so changed by this process that I created a workshop to share with others.
Five years later, I have found new ways to revive this habit including the twist I shared above. As a gift to all of you who have continued to come here and read and comment, to show my appreciation, I am doing a FREE Book of Hours Workshop – The Remix. It will be a series of emails that will be sent to you where you can play along with me.
It’s time to get into the habit of a little leisure.
“We get such a kick out of looking forward to pleasures and rushing ahead to meet them that we can’t slow down enough to enjoy them when they come.” – Alan Watts
I posted this Twyla Tharp quote as a journalling prompt for my teens the other day:
“Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.”
Sometimes you have to learn the rules or experiment within a safe container, before breaking them and venturing outside and taking a leap. Creativity isn’t just about coloring outside the lines and a big family on a budget has to get a little creative.
Sometimes a box can help.
Here is one of my favourite posts on how we did that when the kids were little:
As we were all gathered in the kitchen prepping dinner, I watched my kids do their chores and cook in harmonic bliss, all with the usual hip hop beats in the background. Today’s choice: The DJ Filthy Rich playlist of Tribe. They were laughing and chatting as usual.
I remarked to them, in a rhetorical way, “Imagine you didn’t have each other and you were an only child?”
I really wasn’t expecting an answer. I assumed that they knew what I meant: that quarantine would be a lot more painful if they were by themselves.
But they all stopped and answered:
“All the time, Mom.”
“You’d have bought me a car and a designer bag by now probably.”
“Did you know my friend who is an only child is getting a KING bed??”
“There would be no one to annoy me. And I don’t think that I will ever have children, I might just adopt a dog instead.”
“I am grateful for my sisters…I feel I am less sensitive than I would be if I were only a child. I mean, living with them really toughened me.”
Ouch. Ok. I think they noticed my dismay and are particularly aware that it is that week of the month and quickly make a retraction, although a weak one.
“Mom, of course we all have fantasized deeply about not having siblings, including the potential collection of the entire inheritance, ahem, there is one right?… But of course we love each other and mostly like being around one another.”
I became quiet. When I become quiet, they aren’t sure what’s going to happen next so they clear the room. They prefer the raging lunatic because they are adept at tuning me out or raging back. But when I am quiet, they feel more like it’s a ticking time bomb; it’s the anticipation that kills them.
But I’m not angry. Disappointed a little? Sure. I sit with it, wondering what it is I am feeling at this honest revelation from my kids. Oh, it’s confusion. I am bewildered. It’s not confusing that they feel this way, it’s confusing that I am surprised they feel this way. It happened to me again. I call it, “The Brady Bunch Effect.”
It’s this story – this belief that big families – although have occasional conflict, for the most part, love being a part of a big family.
I always knew that they wondered what it was like to live in a house with no siblings just like how as an only child for 12 years, I wondered what it would be like to have them. “The Grass is Greener” Syndrome.
I would fantasize about an older sister braiding my hair and helping me pick out clothes. And when I watched this happen with my girls a few days ago, I realized that only in this moment did I fulfill what I had missed out on. This Marsha and Jan moment. But if I turned off the “projection,” and looked at the situation for what it actually was, it was really just a moment between two sisters. Five minutes later, they were fighting over clothes or chores or music. It’s all a blur. (Maybe this was a Marsh and Jan moment too but I deleted the episode in my selective memory.)
Being at home with your children for an extended period of time magnifies these myths and stories you create about your family.
For self-preservation mostly, I know that I have prayed for this Brady Bunch Effect at times, clung to it like an optimistic Pollyanna. Without believing that my children, in the end, will be on their knees thanking me that I gave them the gift of others that share their DNA, I would have succumbed to that insidious feeling that every Catholic knows intimately and that every parent of a family of more than three children knows well: GUILT.
The guilt of not giving enough attention. The guilt of not having enough rooms. The guilt of not having enough money to send them all to that camp that you sent the first one or buying new bikes every year or even bikes at all. Don’t get me started on shoes. The guilt of having to split that last piece of pizza in five ways to avoid the never ending comments of “That’s not fair” or “I always knew they were your favourite.”
To assuage this guilt, you have to believe, that in the end, they will see the benefit of having each other; that all the sacrifices made, what we euphemistically call “sharing” in our house, is all for a greater purpose; and that all the big family hacks would come in handy in their own life somehow. For example, a big family always packs snacks so we don’t have to buy any when we are out or on a special treat day, order an extra large hot chocolate and ask for extra cups.
Warning: On those “special treat days,” when you go to that over-priced cafe, order the hot chocolate to go. There is nothing that kills the excitement of this treat when the five of them watch other parents order one regular-sized hot chocolate per child. After they see this happen, their little “shot” of hot cocoa always tastes a little less sweeter.
If you ever have seen my kids at a restaurant, you will watch them order things to share. The only difference between doing it when they were younger and now that they are older is that I don’t do it for them anymore and that they do it in Spanish, “Podemos tener un otro plato por favor? Vamos a compartir. Gracias.” It’s muscle memory. Or PTSD. Either way, it’s now in their DNA.
Nothing turns the Brady Bunch Effect into the Brady Bunch Myth like watching your children get their own jobs. That’s when you really start to wonder if you deprived them of a life of abundance. A life where each person could have their own insert any object or piece of food here.
As soon as they are old enough to work, my kids have to get a job. They have to buy their own clothes, snacks, and help pay for extra-curricular activities. (Pro tip: If they have to pay for their own activities, you’ll soon find out which activities they truly love and which ones are more for you living vicariously through them. The truth hurts. Don’t ever mention soccer to my eldest.)
When they start making their own money, I have seen them turn into “Gollum” from Lord of the Rings. You know that bag of chips that they were never allowed to buy but if Mom was in one of her weak will power moments, she would buy it, and she forced everyone to share that Halloween-sized mini bag? Or that time she pretended that it was a “fractions” lesson when she bought one sprinkled donut to keep everyone quiet in the van and cut it into fifths?
Well, that first payday would roll around and they would buy any of these treats proudly and eat it ALL on their own, of course whispering:
The Brady Bunch Myth in all its glory. What have we done? Have Chris and I totally bastardized the concept of “sharing” where they only see it as a forced obligation? Or did it become a subtle indicator of our economic status and not having enough?
As I came to this realization, I looked down at the sleeping toddler in my wrap, and the three other children in the wagon looking on at envy at their eldest sister eating the fruits of her labor. (Well, the farmer’s market cinnamon bun of her labor.)
This is it. I have a big family. And we are definitely not The Brady Bunch.
F*ck the Brady Brunch. I bought them all their own cinnamon buns and sacrificed our market shop of veggies and fruit. I was the hero for the moment, until I lost it on them for not finishing the cinnamon buns.
After awhile, my eldest began buying things for her brother and sisters but at the same time she started to save for larger goals like for her semester in Barcelona. She found a balance between caring for herself and being generous with her siblings. This past Christmas she spoiled all of us with her generosity. Living with us right now, she is always offering to buy treats for her siblings, especially those chips that Mama still won’t buy.
Gollum went away. He came back with the second child. But again, after awhile, she started to pay for our weekly (ok, daily) gelato treat at our favourite shop. She also paid for her laptop. Again, she has found that balance between her needs and offering to contribute, to share.
Maybe the Brady Bunch Myth isn’t all myth. Maybe it’s just that sometimes you want something for yourself. And that’s ok. Maybe you want your room. Or just something to call your own. Even if it’s temporary.
And that’s the real thing they’ve learned living with each other – how to take that space and time while trying, the key word is trying, to get along with others. Not in the sense of simply coexisting but living with others in a way that helps the other – that feeling of generosity that can only arise in relation to others.
Now I watch closely how they spend time together and also take their solitude. During this quarantine, I watch them work out together, play legos together (the oldest and the youngest), watch movies together, hang out in each other’s room, cook together, and paint together. It has taken awhile to get into a groove with all five children being under the same roof again. But they also go on solitary walks, lie in the hammock and read, spend time at the neighbour’s house for “boy time,”and put on earbuds and go to their room to listen to that High School Musical playlist that would drive any quarantined family to violent behavior.
Through living in close quarters, the majority of that time homeschooling, they’ve learned how to nestle into a rhythm of taking their time to develop their own inner world apart from their siblings.
I feel like Chris and I have had more solitude than we have had in our entire life with the kids at home. There is still the yelling to do chores and to stop fighting over nonsense but as my eldest has observed, it’s a lot less than the early years although other teenagers tend to disagree with their age-appropriate myopic focus.
With her here, she is able to communicate her appreciation for being a part of a big family, now that she doesn’t live with a big family anymore. Oh the irony.
This post was written not just to admit my own belief in a myth but to dispel the belief of outsiders who see our family as a modern day Brady Bunch. We are not perfect nor have ever claim to be. A big family has its ups and downs like small families. There are good and bad days. We have really good days where we have dance parties and cook large meals and paint together.
But we also have bad days when we cry out of frustration at not being heard or seen or both; when personalities clash; when there is no quiet or there is only the quiet of tension and unease, the quiet before the storm as four moon cycles overlap with a tsunami of a pubescent in the middle, so that Chris and the boy never have a break in the mood swings, these waves that crash in succession.
The Brady Bunch Myth is just that, a myth. But sometimes we need myths to get our own stories straight. I don’t know that they will all end up feeling grateful for each other. I know that we don’t end every day like an episode of the Brady Bunch – all loose ends perfectly tied in a bow like a present of tomorrow waiting to be opened. There is often something spilled, or in our jungle home, something dead that needs to be swept clean in the morning.
So we do that.
We clean up our messes and ask for help cleaning up that dead rat.
And we do that one thing that we always do: we try again. We try to show up each day and learn again how to say I love you and I’m sorry. We don’t give up on each other. We are a family of paradoxes. We give and we take. We love our solitude and love hanging out. We yell when we are happy and angry so that you never really can tell what’s going on. We succeed only when we fail. We love quarantine when we don’t have to. We listen to A Tribe Called Quest and James Taylor (ok, maybe that’s just me…Fck John Mayer – sorry Chris and #2).
We are the Dioso-Lopez Tribe.
And today, there is a cinnamon bun waiting for each of us.
One of my favourite posts. Let’s not forget to hand write. Especially now.
Here, I talk about finding letters and other handwritten correspondence from my grandparents who I have been thinking about lately. My great aunt just passed away. I saw her every day for a large span of my childhood.
More on the importance of handwriting soon and the completion of this quote from a new Book of Hours entry…
I have been reading a lot of Montaigne lately and he has popped up in several places.
I first encountered his essays last summer on a coffee table at a friend’s cottage. (Thanks Brad!) I read a few of the essays and was intrigued at how they were written – so random, so personal, so rapt with attention to the life around him, and so many references to his cat.
The next encounter came about a month ago, the beginning of our social distancing.
Brad, Chris’ friend, had lent two of his books where Montaigne is the major subject:
I started with the Bakewell book and it turned quickly into 21-Days of journaling challenge with the older teens and their group of friends I teach.
I loved how Bakewell calls Montaigne the “first blogger.” And how he coined the term “essay” which comes from the French verb “essayer” – to try.
All these recent encounters with this pioneer of blogging led me back here to my blog. My eleven year online journal. I haven’t been as regular or consistent as I would have liked. There are many posts that are apologetic for being gone so long or not showing up when I promised and I would pull the “I got five kids” Card. Story of my life.
I had trouble writing publicly during the “The Death and Destruction Years” of 2016-2019. It was an especially rough time in our family and I was busy “living the questions” as Rilke poetically wrote yet not so poetic to be lived with five children and a husband who needs routine.
When you are thick in the shit of life, the last thing you want to do is describe how it smells, especially when you didn’t expect everyone to shit on you at once. It wasn’t all shit but there wasn’t enough time of the re-surfacing above the shit to make a coherent blog post without feeling like I was exposing our family at a time when we were all pretty raw from goodbyes and grief.
(The word “transition” is a bad word in our house.)
I come back to the blog again like the true prodigal daughter I am, inspired by Montaigne.
For those that have been reading along for the last few weeks, you may have noticed that some posts seem more put together than others. I tend to ramble or repeat myself like that elderly aunt who tells you the same stories about that time you were little and you had that epic tantrum with her. (Yes, I was a brat. Thanks for the reminder, Auntie).
I feel that Montaigne is a kindred spirit in many ways. As Hampl remarks, Montaigne saw:
the act of leaving the world’s stage as the best way to attain balance, and beyond that to reach the self’s greatest achievement – integrity. The retreat from ‘the world’ was the way to avoid the evil of certainty. The malignant cells of certainty that create the monster of demagoguery.
Is that what my desire to move out into the jungle is? My best shot at attaining balance and to have integrity, in the purest meaning of the word:
**To be whole. **
An opportunity to do what Humpty Dumpty could not, to put the pieces back together. Maybe he just needed an off grid home in the jungle away from the familiar.
Hampfl asks a question, at a time in recent years when people began reading Montaigne again:
Why Montaigne? Why now?
Her attempt at answering is full of maybes that make sense.
Maybe Montaigne appeals to this age because he “retired” – that word again.
Some days Chris and I feel retired. A re-tired. Tired again. Tired of all of the definitions of us that we made in Toronto, twenty-two years worth of definitions. Tired to the point where we needed to be away, to redefine in seclusion. Or at least have a place to retire when we need it, which as we get older, and the world gets more and more “too this” or “too that,” we definitely appreciate.
More on Montaigne from Hampl:
He had left the world of power and command, sequestered himself in his tower to investigate the furnishings of his mind. Individual consciousness was his subject, not the sweep of his tumultuous era. Yet his was an age of terror and cruelty, crying out for explanation, for a big-picture narrative of its seismic divisions. … In times of peace the age itself is the story, leisurely with intrigue, gossip, affairs of state, affairs of love – busy, busy, busy with its social self, making massive formal shapes. In times of terror like Montaigne’s, like ours, we (we readers) seek instead the sane singular voice, alone with its thoughts, maybe to assure ourselves that sanity does exist somewhere, and the self the littleness of personhood is somewhere alive, taking its notes. And that this matters. We know the awful part, the sweep of history’s cruelties. We want the singular voice, abiding. This is why a little girl keeping a diary in an Amsterdam attic is ‘the voice of the Holocaust.’
Ah yes. This makes sense to me now. I blog about the bits and pieces of my thoughts and maybe I am not alone with them as my family crowds this house and I cannot lock myself in a tower, although I would love to at times. But these thoughts are mine, proof of an alive self that matters. One voice among the billions. It doesn’t matter to me who reads this. What matters is that I write it.
Back to my word of the year, “Comfort.” I take comfort in recording these details of my life just as I take comfort in reading all of the previous posts that deliver the tiny snapshots of attempts at understanding how to live.
Did you know that the root of the word “comfort” is “con” + “fort”, which means “with strength”?
It is here, my mundane words about life with kids and home and family – my essentials – that I find strength when I think about the world. I can’t make sense of what’s going on out there half the time so why not root down in the little things I can wrap my head around or at least my large comforter.
And now 21 Days of How To Live sponsored by Montaigne (a lesson with the teens that I haven’t published and we are actually on Day 23.)
I love these challenges because there is a purpose and a theme. When I have followed someone else’s prompts or inspired by another’s creativity, like the ones from WriteALM or Bruce Mau, it was even better. I could just write and not think about what to write about the next day. I let the theme create a comfortable blog from which my words and worlds could flow out.
I created the other challenges at times in my life when I wanted to kickstart my creativity. Creativity blossoms when I create a habit of it, ironically.
Montaigne went into solitude to find freedom and to write about his process. He quotes some heavy-hitting Stoics but also found solace in the Epicureans and the Sceptics. He didn’t have a master plan or specific prompts except the questions he was seeking answers to regarding how to live. Maybe “living the questions” can be lived poetically even with the obscene and grotesque and the ordinary. Or it just means to show up each day.
This is what I am trying here. I am trying to show up daily and write.
To stalk my life without too much planning, without an overall purpose but to show up and look around. It is very uncomfortable not to have a plan for this. I was just complaining to my husband this morning that my blog feels all over the place. And don’t get me started on the spotty tags.
In a world where we are always looking for the neat little box of themes and organized spaces, I am taking a page out of my own book and the life I have created and will with absolute disorganization and abandon. No prescribed challenges. When you visit me here, “you get what you get and don’t get upset” – a favourite little rhyme I tell my children. Don’t get upset when I jump topics or linger too long on one.
It may be like reading someone’s thoughts mid-thought. I often talk to my husband that way. I will look up and say something like, “Do you think it’s a good idea to do that? We should think about that the next time we go to the grocery store.” This is a normal occurrence in our relationship of twenty-six years. He always says his go-to sentence when this happens, “You forgot to fill me in on the first half of the conversation in your head.”
That’s what this blog will look like for awhile. An experiment of sorts. A place that isn’t just about homeschooling (working on those tags!), or parenting, or creativity, or even writing. Sometimes you may read about how I feel about my cats a la Montaigne or the colour blue. And sometimes I might write a post that has it all – how blue cats make you a better homeschooler. Who knows.
Maybe visiting here will be your daily kinder surprise? You never know what you’re going to get. (Oh wait, that’s a box of chocolates…)
I am not discounting the value of those insert #of days-challenges right now that everywhere. These can really help with focus and consistency and even open you up to a part of you that you dearly missed or never knew existed.
I want to do something I have never done and do the thing that I keep reading about it all the books I have on writing. Show up every day and write. I haven’t gone longer than 100 days. (I am currently on Day 24 on the blog although I couldn’t post this past Monday due to a surprise vehicular restriction and no time to schedule it before.)
Tyler Cowen, one of my favourite bloggers, has blogged every day for almost seventeen years. EVERY DAY. And of course, Seth Godin.
As Lamott writes in Bird By Bird, her little book on instructions for writing and life,
You try to sit down at approximately the same time every day. This is how you train your unconscious to kick in for you creatively.
There’s that word again. Try.
Maybe that should have been my word too this year.
So this is what I have been trying for the last eleven years on this blog:
I try to share my experiences, more good than bad, not to brag but to talk about the lessons I have learned that I wish someone had shared with me when my kids were little. (I borrowed that from Tony Robbins’ quote that I can’t quite remember…he is not bragging about his achievements but sharing lessons learned.)
I try to share tidbits of our life today to update family and friends. (We are all still alive in the jungle. We just don’t have reliable internet to keep in touch. This blog can serve as a one-stop shop.)
I try to write. I practice this because I enjoy it.
I try to record the ordinary and extraordinary moments of my days because I love looking back to read what I found ordinary and extraordinary in days gone by.
I try to share cool things I am reading or doing with the kids because we all need a little help or burst of inspiration.
I try to look at the ways in which I stumble with objectivity and non-judgement and humour. It’s like not wiping up the spill right away but seeing what shape it takes to discern the meaning even if it feels more like a tea-leaf reading.
I try to write down what my children are thinking and saying and doing without infringing on their privacy, allowing them to keep pieces of themselves secret.
I try to write the funny and the heavy. My eldest likes to read the older blog posts because she says that I “used to write the funny more.” Then they grew up and posts became as serious as the issues that adolescence brings. Now that I have grown accustomed to teenagers in the house, I find them funnier. Now that “The Age of Death and Destruction” is over, I am ready to usher in “The Age of Comfort and Joy” – a rare age from a woman that has shunned both states out of habit and self-deprecation. An age which hopefully will tell its own story as it is lived.
I try to make sense but I don’t hold much hope in sounding like I do. I am still a mom of five and I will always play that card but will try harder to play it less. They can be so overwhelming. Like my friend Brooke and I would say, “Some days we feel the five.”
I try to be consistent in my posting schedule but I have five kids. (Ok, seriously, the last time now that I am committing to writing daily.)
I may not last seventeen years but maybe I can do a bit better than my last record – 100 days.
I will end this post with two quotes from the man himself, Montaigne:
Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself. I portray passing.
I will write and you, whomever you are, will read this. We are two individuals passing by each other through space and time without a specific purpose but to meet briefly and make an attempt to answer how to live.
I agonized over my 2020 word, my intention for another year and potentially the decade. It’s April already and I am so grateful for the word I eventually chose.
As I contemplated my word for 2020, I thought about different things. I was opening a little independent learning centre and I was a little nervous. We just installed solar power in our home and our life changed. What word would I pick? What would I like to invite? Power. Lead. _Execute.
My words for the past few years have been so strong. 2019, my word was “BIG” and it was a gigantic year for me. 2018, my word was “GROUND” and we grounded in our new home and on our land and our new family rhythms. 2018 was a year FULL of transitions.
For a lot of people, I noticed that 2020 was going to be a big and transformative decade.
I took stock of my life and looked at those words that I had contemplated. I shuddered. I decided I had had enough earthshaking transformations for awhile. Maybe I should pick a word that was softer. A word that wasn’t going to rock my world again. My life up to this point was a life of living with landslides.
As I kept “feeling” the word as 2020 approached. I was journalling daily the week before Christmas hoping the word would just hit me like a lightning bolt it normally did every year.
One one of those evenings, as I sat on one of our most recent purchases, our cozy couch, writing under the warm light of our outdoor lights, and enjoying the snug feeling of my favorite jogging pants, I thought about the Christmas gift my daughter gave us.
She gave us a beautiful comforter. A luxury item I had wanted to buy on our last visit to Toronto but just couldn’t splurge. So she did. After opening the gift, I immediately spread it over our new sheets and added some pillows and a throw and voila! – a little luxury in our container bedroom. It is one of my little joys, this favourite sight and feel at the end of the day and the first thing I feel in the morning.
It truly lives up to its name: comforter.
Yes. Perfect. I need a little comfort. 2020 was about the comfort. No wonder it didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks. This word only slides around you when you need it most. Until you feel it lightly drape over you, and you hear yourself sigh while your shoulders drop from years of being held up in a tense pose, you didn’t know how much you needed it.
As I look around me today, I am surprised that I did not see how much comfort I have felt despite the changes.
But this was not always the case. If we were to name time periods for our family – 2016-2019 would be “The Death and Destruction Years.” As over dramatic as this era may sound, I can only describe this time as taking a machete to our old life and hacking it to bits.
We had to kill so many beliefs in those years because of our discomfort with the changes in our life. We grieved the old and were resistant to the new. The kids hoping that they could return to the way of life that was comfortable, but mostly they wanted the familiar.
And coincidentally, many people close to us include two of my grandparents, an uncle, and a great-aunt also passed away during this time.
I don’t expect my children to do what we have done but I hope they feel confident enough to know how we were able to do it. Not just live off grid and live in another country. I hope they remember exactly what it took to make this decision – deliberately placing ourselves in a very uncomfortable place.
It’s not sound advice to just tell them to get a piece of land and do what we did. It’s the part about resilience. The root meaning is “the act of rebounding.” It’s an incredibly annoying word for my kids. They are dizzy from rebounding for most of the last four years. Boing! New country. Boing! New rental. Boing! Jungle home, no electricity. Boing! Boing!
How uncomfortable can you BE to respond in ways to create comfort? In other words, when we create discomfort or find ourselves in situations of extreme discomfort, how do we move to a place of comfort?
This is a very uncomfortable time for a lot of people. Plans are difficult to make. Some are living on multiple edges: financial, psychological, emotional. Life is not normal and we are not sure if it will ever get back to normal.
But when you have created enough discomfort in one’s life on one’s own terms, you are more adept at creating comfort at any moment.
It sounds a little backwards: Create discomfort to find comfort.
Life and its paradoxes.
How to create discomfort?
I am a pro at this. Chris and I also call it “setting the bar low.”
Not all of the following on my list will create discomfort because it depends on the person. For example, #3 on the list no longer creates discomfort for anyone in my house. It’s a natural part of life. Point #5, on the other hand, is more uncomfortable for some than others. After seeing a snake the other day, item #4 is high on the scale of discomfort.
Let them wait. (Wait for electricity. Wait for a fridge…). Cultivating patience is key to comfort.
Give no suggestions except “Go play.” (Or just “Go.”)
Turn off wi-fi daily for a specified time period and say, “No screen time for one hour.” Or two or 48. (Or disconnect internet for an unknown period of time.)
Tell them to go outside and stay there until you say so.
Give them a stack of classics and tell them to pick one a week to read.
Tell them to “Make something.”
Don’t tell them to do anything except be by themselves in a hammock watching what’s happening outside.
Assign a project that will take at least a month to complete.
Learn a new skill.
Or you can live without electricity, running water, and flushing toilets and introduce them one at a time and watch the kids celebrate, while you and your husband high five at setting the bar so low.
You really have to be honest with your discomfort. For example, I am not going to lie – the heat of the tropics, large flying cockroaches, and potential dengue-carrying mosquitoes doesn’t make me as uncomfortable as it does others.
However, living in extreme cold and hiking through a forest in winter weather was uncomfortable for me for most of my life. Having to layer just to go sit outside was not my favourite thing but I did get used to it. I didn’t love being cold to the bone for six months of the year but I did it for 37 years.
For some, -25 degrees is now in their comfort zone. I see a lot of friends in Canada posting beautiful photos of their walks in the woods, reveling in the Winter Wonderland. Clearly, a comfort zone now. Some remark that they couldn’t come and do what we are doing because of the heat and the bugs.
You get used to things very quickly. Humans are a beautiful species. Thanks to our innovative and creative minds, we can adapt to a lot which is why you can find our species all over the globe in all types of weather as opposed to other species.
Don’t get me wrong. I love being comfortable at this moment in my life. I have spent a lot of my life in uncomfortable situations, pushing and expanding my comfort zones. I mean, we lived without electricity for two years. Now that we have it, the rainy periods give me a little anxiety. In this way, I am comfortable to an extent. I fully know how our solar power doesn’t guarantee unlimited electricity. I am comfortable until I forget we are running low on sawdust and may have to improvise. I am comfortable in my bed under my comforter until the next raging tropical storm or earthquakes comes to shake me a little under that flimsy security blanket.
Instead of worrying about the next uncomfortable moment, I choose to find a comfortable thought right now.
Comfort can mean complacency. It’s a fine line. When we are too comfortable, we become afraid of the novel and new experience, the unknown. Sometimes it is in that space of leaping without looking that we learn the best part of ourselves.
The lovely Brene Brown said, “we need to cultivate the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us how to accept discomfort as a part of growth.”
But maybe it’s also ok to be complacent sometimes. To stop swimming upstream. To pause between growth periods. To take a moment before meeting life head on again by letting go. The origin of the word complacency means to be satisfied with one’s self, to be pleased. When did that become a sign of lazy? In a culture of more And busy and productivity, pleasure gets a raw deal.
I am all in for comfortable pleasure.
Now, our home may not be synonymous with those two things as we may not have all the amenities and live quite rustic, much to the chagrin of my eldest daughter who is finding a way to relax into our life here, but one thing we have is a lot of space. A comforting commodity when you are confined with your family.
My children have their own practices of daily meditation and I asked my eldest if she had meditated today and she said that she doesn’t feel the need to practice when she is here. In the city, it’s a different story. There are so many busy thoughts and competing energies that pull her in a million directions. Here, it is easy to be present. In fact, it is in your best interest to be present here.
Our life is not the most luxurious or even comfortable for most people, but it keeps one HERE. Like one of the first nights she was back and the cat greeted her with a dead mouse or the massive locust that landed on her while we were watching a movie. Or poo buckets with sawdust.
You don’t take anything for granted here especially when you reach for things in places you can’t see. Or when you lift up the toilet lid. Or even going for a walk requires presence. The rocks can be slippery. There may be a snake lying across the road. There may be butterflies you have never seen before and may never see again.
Life out here barely becomes comfortable or even “the same.” Nature is the majestic player who maintains control and the only way to be on comfortable terms with her is to give up control.
The things that we have lost: pets, attachment to pristine cleanliness, convenience, a routine that is not weather dependent, sometimes routine all together, and our sanity.
The things we have found: mold, the darkest dark that a new moon can give, presence, an ability to surrender, what is essential, and our sanity.
Recently we were home bound for four days because of vehicular restrictions for Easter Week. In a house with no internet, no flushing toilets, and no hot water, we still found comfort in our home. Comfort in meals together, in our farm community up here, in solitude, in music, and in our individual agency over how we used this time.
I contend that comfort and discomfort are two sides of the same coin. And creating comfort wherever you are and in whatever situation is a skill that can be practiced. Find the small joys – from comfort foods to comfort clothes. I have found ways to quickly create comfort when and where I can because frankly, there is too much energy spent on being uncomfortable.
When I announced that I had my word for 2020 to the family, they all held their breath. Living with me is probably the most uncomfortable thing in their life. I push when it’s easier to pull. And I always want to take the scenic route that has unexpected dead ends and takes twice as long. But boy did they collectively exhale when I told them my intention this year and I think there were a few high fives and chest bumps. Ok I get it, you all have had enough of me pushing my comfort zones.
And so I commit to comfort. Comfort without control. Comfort in the ordinary. Comfort in the unexpected blessings like all seven of us living in our home. Comfort in writing here.
Tomorrow…more on writing here and a declaration of sorts…