How to transition to better nutrition

Over the last few months, I have been asked several times to help with transitioning a family to a healthier lifestyle, especially as it relates to nutrition. Generally, the considerations of healthy choices for parents and young children, as well as budget and possible food sensitivities, shape the solution. Below are a few things that have worked for my family.

Transition to better nutrition

Just to give you a clear picture of our nutritional parameters at this point, one person in our family needs to stay free of gluten, cow dairy, and amaranth (which is present in many manufactured gluten-free foods and recipes). Another person is sensitive to beans and legumes, excluding green beans. These few sensitivities already eliminate so many possibilities from a standard American diet that they would seem daunting to most people. Thankfully, even before these food sensitivities showed up in tests, we have already chosen to follow a primal/paleo-style diet, making the additional adjustments a lot easier.

Our focus is on health. We do not restrict portions — in fact, since I’m nursing, I need extra nutrition to ensure that my own resources are not depleted. We do not obsess over weight. The results of the food sensitivity testing have given us a clearer view of our gut health. Via modifying our diet a bit further, we are looking to heal the gut. Once that’s done, we can try re-introducing some offending foods on a limited basis to see if (a) they cause any issues, and (b) we still enjoy them.

We do avoid

  • processed foods, even if marked gluten-free
  • sugary foods
  • cow dairy
  • non-fermented soy
  • GMO-containing foods

We do embrace

  • organic vegetables, greens, fruit and berries
  • antibiotic- and hormone-free meat
  • free-range eggs
  • occasional seafood, preferably wild
  • occasional goat yogurt and soft or hard goat cheese
  • buckwheat, quinoa, rice (including rice noodles and rice pizza crust)
  • healthy fats (coconut oil, good-quality olive oil, and avocados)
  • bone broth
  • green smoothies
  • organ meats (liver, kidneys, oxtail, pig legs, etc.)
  • nuts and seeds
  • quality spices
  • fermented foods (kimchi, sourkraut)

Budget considerations

We buy beef in bulk once a year in the fall from a local farmer and store it in the chest freezer. Throughout the year, we buy the rest of the meat and eggs from a local farm that does not use antibiotics or hormones, with a large part of animal food coming from grazing. We place an order about every 3 weeks when we are running out of eggs. Fish we buy on occasion and prefer wild Alaskan sockeye salmon that has a short life span (doesn’t have time to accumulate lots of contaminants), is not a predator (doesn’t consume other fish incorporating their contaminants), and is not subject to farming practices.

For the vegetables and fruit, we get a weekly all-organic vegetable and fruit box delivered, with mostly local seasonal produce. We can adjust the contents of the box online to include more of what we need. Ordering online and/or on sale allows for tighter budget control — if you don’t enter a grocery store often, you are less likely to buy things you don’t need. If we do shop at a grocery store, we stick to food that can go bad and rarely venture into the inner isles. In summer, we also have a garden that provides us with lots of greens, herbs, and fresh vegetables.

We get coconut oil and a few other staples at Costco or online. Whatever additional produce we need to pick up during a week, we aim to buy organic at Loblaws or local health stores like Rainbow Foods or Herb & Spice.

A simple approach to daily meals

Breakfasts are easy:

  • Eggs with variations. You can add chopped up veggies, ground meat, sausage, bacon, fish. You can make a scramble with paprika, coriander, fresh-ground black pepper, sea salt, or try cinnamon for a sweeter option. Lots of opportunities to integrate leftovers into an egg-based breakfast, you can bring in broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, etc. The variations are endless. Eggs are a powerhouse of nutrients, and there are recipes (such as egg muffins or egg zucchini loaf) where you can replace grains with eggs).
  • Buckwheat with raisins, berries or nuts and coconut oil.
  • Quinoa with chopped up veggies and greens, or with berries and fruit pieces.
  • Goat milk yogurt with berries or nuts and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
  • Oat-banana pancakes.

All of these are popular with our kids. We also give them a daily dose of probiotics by mixing it in water (for the baby) or in apple sauce (for older child). They also get vitamin D daily (a higher dose during the long Canadian winter) and the older child gets an EFA supplement and vitamin C.

For lunch, we often do pureed soups from sweet potato, beets, turnips, squashes – whatever is in season. The chest freezer comes in handy for storing these — in the morning, I pull out portions of whatever soup strikes our fancy on a particular day.

Lots of times lunch consists of leftovers from dinner. I often cook in advance, which means we have a variety of protein and veggie options in the fridge ready to be combined for whatever meal we want. I generally base each meal on a protein: eggs, meat, seafood. Then I add lots of veggies – stir-fried, steamed, roasted, fresh. Our staples are sweet potatoes, beets, green beans, mushrooms, bell peppers, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage.

Dinners often include roast meat or fish, or ground meat cooked with spices, stir-fries, salads, stews, steamed veggies. I love Thai cuisine, so curries and rice noodle dishes make an appearance often. We use olive oil, vinegar, avocado, sesame oil, lime and lemon juice for salad dressing, instead of buying store-based ones. Sometimes I venture into recreating a staple such as pizza by using rice or cauliflower crust, organic tomato sauce, fresh veggies, ground meat or sausage pieces, and shredded goat cheese, or remember one of my Russian recipes, such as borsch or marinated eggplants, to add more variation.

We always have lots of different nuts and seeds on hand for snacking and adding to salads, stir-fries, yogurt. Mark’s Daily Apple has great guides to nutritional content of nuts and seeds.

Some of our usual snacks

  • We make smoothies with kale, spinach, other greens, adding in an apple or a banana to sweeten, frozen berries, and hemp, chia or ground flax seed for additional nutrition.
  • Cut up veggies (carrots, bell peppers, celery, cucumbers, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) with hummus.
  • Apple or pear slices with almond butter.
  • Olives and pickles.
  • Fresh and dried fruit and berries.
  • Avocados with freshly-ground black pepper.
  • Nuts and seeds.
  • Dark chocolate.

Habit creation

One of the first steps to transitioning to better nutrition is to stop buying junk food. If it’s not in your house when you are hungry, you are not going to eat it. Another step is not to succumb to convenience of getting pizza or fast food delivery – instead, keep your freezer stocked with ready-to-heat healthy prepared meals. All you have to do is make a bit extra whenever you cook and freeze it. It comes in very helpful if you or the children are sick and you have less time to cook — feeding your family nutritious meals instead of conveniently-available junk will speed up their recovery. Eating out often or impulsively getting food delivered is also a sure way to go over budget.

People are creatures of habit. When you create the habits of healthy eating, you would have mastered the transition. People are also lazy creatures, in that we are looking for the most efficient and least time-consuming way to do things. Make it easy for yourself to not eat junk food or order in, by having healthy, quick and easy meal options in your fridge or freezer instead.

There are books written on this subject and it’s easy to keep going, but I think I’ll stop here. There are lots of organizational and budgeting nuances and culinary possibilities, but my formula is to start with non-contaminated ingredients, cook them lovingly, share them with my loved ones, and save some for the future.

What are your strategies for better nutrition?

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Put things back where they belong

Make it a habit to put things back so you don’t have to think about it.

Many lists of rules for children or roommates include some variation of the rule “Put things back where they belong”. This is so basic that you might be thinking it not worth being mentioned. Think again. Lots of adults throw their dirty clothing on the floor wherever they happen to have taken them off and don’t bother bringing the dirty dishes from the dinner table to even the kitchen, let alone putting them into the sink or dishwasher or, *gasp*, washing them. We need to declutter our space not only because we get more stuff than we use, but also because, without putting things back to their designated place, even the useful objects tend to clutter up every available surface.

There are so many issues stemming from not putting things back in their place that it seems silly not to develop the habit of returning everything to its resting state when you are done. How many times have you run around your place swearing, looking for your keys, wallet, or phone when you are late for an appointment? How about frantically searching for a band-aid while trying to contain the blood gushing from your finger which you’ve impaled while trying to cut up some veggies on a small region of counter free of clutter? What about looking for wipes and realizing they are not where they should be when you have a very messy squirming baby in your arms?

None of these situations are enjoyable. We run late, make a bigger mess, and find obstacles in our way that would not be there if only we would designate an appropriate place for things we use on a regular basis and develop the habit of returning them there after use. When you look forward to spending the rare quiet 15 minutes to relax with a book while your baby is peacefully napping, it is really frustrating to realize you’ve wasted them searching for the book.

Don’t wait until you run out of supplies or ingredients — replenish them. Don’t allow the laundry to pile up on the floor — make a habit of putting it directly into the laundry basket. Wash dishes after every meal or at least once a day, so that you don’t wake up to a kitchen that looks like a battlefield. Avoid frustration trying to find things when they are needed and tripping over them constantly when they are not. Put things back where they belong, and teach your children to do the same or you’ll spend a lot of time picking up after them. Their future roommates and partners will thank you.

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Declutter your space

It is much easier to focus when multiple objects in your surroundings are not screaming for your attention. While I do not function well in minimalistic settings where all you can find in a living room is a sofa, a lamp, and a coffee table (I always feel like a tumbleweed will roll across this dreary, impersonal landscape at any time), I also get overwhelmed in a room where every inch of space is full of randomly-placed objects not connected to each other by form or function.

Productive Zen Mama - Declutter Your SpaceNow, you might say, what about the toys being strewn all over the floor at any point after children have been in a room for more than five minutes? Ah, the key here is a deep breath, a “c’est la vie” attitude, and perhaps a tall drink. We can only control our own environment, and that only to a certain extent. After all, if your mail gets delivered through a slot in your door, the only thing you can do is pick it up. However, what you do with it after (throw it onto another spot on the floor, onto your desk already heaping with papers, into the cat’s litter box or into the recycling bin) is completely up to you.

Due to the ever-growing number of projects I’m working on at any given time, my environment tends to bulge with books to read, projects to complete, puzzles to assemble, beading projects to explore, items to photograph, clothes to mend, laundry to sort, recipes to try, notes and plans to follow-up on, and pieces of paper with ideas to consider. Add to this toys’ tendency to migrate into every nook and cranny, laundry and empty glasses left around by busy family members, cat’s chewy toy, yoga mats, random electronics, essential oil bottles, USB keys… — this list can grow a lot longer.

The mental stress this creates is significant. Have you ever walked into a kitchen with dirty dishes piled high from the night before? Did it make you want to cook a healthy breakfast or to run screaming to the nearest coffee shop? How much mental effort would it take to disassemble this dirty pile so that you can see your kitchen counter and still be inspired to cook? Have you ever procrastinated studying for an exam or doing an important project by re-organizing your desk or cleaning your home instead? Gratification is easily achieved by doing a mentally-undemanding task such as cleaning, while the more difficult task of studying or working is perceived as a much harder one, when our mind is being distracted by multiple reminders (in the form of clutter) of other available actions.

Naturally, it would be great to avoid creating the clutter in the first place. In reality, however, we also need to periodically rearrange our workspace to clear out the clutter, change up our environment, and at the same time prioritize the most pressing tasks.

Decluttering tips:

  • Make it fun. Just like anything in life, if you perceive this activity as being pleasant, you’ll be much more willing to do it, it will fly by faster, and your satisfaction with the process and the result will be greater. Combine it with music, listening to a seminar or an audiobook, hanging out with a friend, or playing with a child.
  • Start from your immediate surroundings: your desk or a book case, kitchen or pantry, toy boxes or laundry bins, – whatever clutters the space you are using most often.
  • Consider re-arranging the furniture. You can always move it back where it was before, but you might discover a better-lit area, a space-saving configuration, or a more accessible setup.
  • Do a little bit at a time. It’s easy to feel burned out after spending an entire day decluttering. Sometimes, like during spring cleaning, you can be more productive in one longer session, especially if the entire family is helping out. In that case, the greater productivity comes from batching related jobs, while with decluttering you are usually dealing with a bunch of unrelated items that need sorting and re-organizing. Try clearing up one drawer or one shelf a day for quick gratification and sustainable progress.
  • Consider cataloging books, music CDs, software, games, and any collectables you have. Keep a record of where the items are located. It comes in handy when you want to find a particular CD among hundreds or determine whether you own a particular figurine. It is also useful if you have your possessions insured and have to make a claim. I have actually written a piece of software for myself to catalog my extensive library, another one to keep track of all the data and music CDs, and I’m documenting my puzzle collection on my blog. In the process of cataloging, you might discover gaps in your collection, logical groupings of items, duplicates, and items in need of repair.
  • Consider what can be sold, gifted, or donated. If you tend to keep things you are not using, evaluate whether it makes sense to let them go.
  • Use containers to divide and sort items in closets and drawers. Ikea and Pinterest can offer some great ideas on how to pack a large number of things into well-organized small spaces.
  • Use labels to indicate where things are. Often I end up putting an item somewhere clever, only to not be able to find it again when it’s needed. I use labels on herb and spice containers in the kitchen, on drawers of art and craft supplies, and on boxes of toys.
  • Don’t stress about it! Remember, it is not a hungry tiger chasing you, it’s just some items which you might or might not need that require your attention. It does not have to happen immediately or be done perfectly.
  • Remember about mental “declutter” — great ways to clear your mind are going for a walk, meditating, taking a relaxing bath, dancing, playing with a singing bowl, having a cup of tea, doing something with your hands such as beading, crocheting, or assembling a puzzle. Let your mind wander, take in the sights and sounds of the here and now, lose yourself in a relaxing and enjoyable activity, and you will come out with a greater mental clarity.

Watch how your attitudes change as a result of a less chaotic environment. I have had my workstation in the living room for several years, and have recently noticed that during the evening I would be trying to get some work done while the kids wanted to play and asked for my attention. As a result, I would be frustrated at not being able to finish even a simple task on the computer and would not be fully present for them. Additionally, during the work day, toys all over the floor (we use our living room as a large play area) would wear on my ability to concentrate on the task at hand. Simply clearing the toys away took only minutes (thanks to many boxes and shelves designated for the purpose) and worked wonders by letting me focus better.

Last month, I have ventured even further and have moved my system upstairs, into my studio. We had to re-wire the network across two floors and get creative with the placement of various peripherals, but the resulting productivity was well worth it. Now I have my workstation upstairs, on what used to be my puzzle desk, strongly associated with relaxation. I find that I can focus much better, get better lighting during the day, and can think much more clearly in a room which is full of imagery that fuels my creativity. It also allows me to manage my Etsy store inventory without running between two floors checking the items against the shop listings. My puzzles have migrated downstairs, where I can occasionally put in a few pieces as the kids are playing around me.

Re-organize and declutter your physical space to lower your stress, save time, and boost your productivity.

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Pay it forward

When you have some time and energy to spare for the world, think of who can use some help and reach out a helping hand.

Those of us who live in cities far from where we were born and where our extended family resides know the value of help in those times when our efforts and resources are just not enough. We are isolated — there is no village to help raise our children or care for us when we are in need, so there are many times when we might feel like there is no help and no hope. We are left to our own devices to try to get through whatever challenges we are facing. Whether it is caring for a newborn with high needs and getting barely any sleep, fighting a serious illness, lacking food or shelter for a time, being stranded in an unfamiliar city, getting laid off and unable to find a job, facing mental or physical challenges, or a combination thereof, — having someone help out at a rough time can bring hope and help us get back on level ground.

Productive Zen Mama - Pay It ForwardSo many of us are hesitant to ask for help, being raised to be “self-sufficient”. Abolish this idea. Give and accept freely. People want to help — let them share something with you, and give forth freely — you will discover that wonderful feeling of helping someone out.

There are many ways to reach out, from simple ones like opening a door for someone or sending a postcard letting someone know you are thinking about them, to more involved ways, like watching someone’s children so the parents can get some much-needed sleep or time to reconnect with each other. Pass on a book, clothing, kitchen gear. Say “thank-you” to someone who has made your day more pleasant, listen to someone’s challenges, help someone move, give someone a handmade gift — just to show appreciation for having them in your life.

Another great way to help is participating in a meal train. A meal train is an arrangement where people sign up to bring someone meals for a period of time, and it is wonderful during the times when you are overwhelmed, like immediate postpartum or taking care of someone with an illness. There are online tools to facilitate the meal train management, such as MealTrain.com. People can sign up for a specific date and leave a message such as “I’m bringing African chicken peanut stew, some rice to go with it, and muffins for breakfast.” This solution works wonders, allows everyone to see gaps where no one has subscribed and plan accordingly, and you can invite anyone with an email address.

I have participated in many postpartum meal trains, for both people I know well and complete strangers. I don’t need to know the family to realize it is a challenging and overwhelming time for them, and I don’t mind at all sharing a meal and a good wish with them. Additionally, there are many other options in society to help out with food, such as bringing meals to someone who is looking after a sick relative or a child with challenges, an elderly person, a lonely soul, or a neighbour. Reach out, help someone, and you’ll see how good it feels.

Helping others without expecting anything in return is a wonderful way to build and strengthen social connections and contribute to the world. It does wonders for your emotional well-being, lowers your stress level, helps recovery from depression, and there is even a link between volunteering and greater longevity!

It is not hard to find time to help someone out. For instance, when you cook, make a double amount of what you need, freeze the extra portions, and have a meal on-hand, ready to give to someone in need. If you feel like socializing, reach out to a friend who could use emotional support and make plans for lunch, drinks, a coffee date, or a potluck gathering. Offer to take a friend’s children to the park or to your place to play, while the parents take a much-needed break. Give a ride to someone without a vehicle. Freecycle things you no longer need. Volunteer to support an organization that strives to achieve the goals you believe in. Give someone a hug, be kind to a stranger, smile at a passer-by, cast a message of caring out into the universe, and life can take you in a surprisingly refreshing and rewarding direction.

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Do not do work twice

Reduce the time spent on maintenance tasks by avoiding doing the work twice.

We often tend to overestimate how much we can do in a few hours and underestimate how much we can do in, say, a week. This is because throughout the week there are opportunities to shave the time off things we tend to do regularly. One of the ways to do that is not doing the work more than once. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Productive Zen Mama - Do not do work twiceIf you bring something home, put it away immediately.

Don’t drop the mail on the floor or table where it would accumulate — instead, spend a minute to recycle junk mail and divide the (usually very few) remaining envelopes into stacks for each family member. (And make a mental note to add a sign to your door requesting that no flyers make their way into your mailbox.)

Designate a place for your wallet, keys, cell phone, purse, gloves, sunglasses, lip balm — whatever you need every time you go out the door. A set of pockets (one for each family member) or a shelf near the door works well. That way you will not be looking for your keys all over the house when you are rushing out the door.

Keep a place to charge your devices – cell phone, music player, tablet, camera, etc. For devices that need frequent charging, it’s best to develop a habit of plugging them in at the same time every day (such as a cell phone or a music player), to avoid running out of power when you need it. Keep the tablet plugged in when you can, so that when you need to be mobile you can count on several hours of battery power remaining. For the camera, it’s best to charge it before any significant event where you’d like to take pictures, as well as right after such an event. Since I use mine quite regularly, I prefer setting a once-a-week reminder in my calendar to charge the camera.

I’ve been taught to remove street clothing as I enter my home and change into home clothes. It helps keep the street dust and dirt from spreading throughout your home, prevent spills and stains on work clothes (and you get plenty of both with the kids), and the joy of slipping into something more comfortable so that your skin can breathe — this is of immense importance to me now, in Canadian winter, when I’m engulfed in several layers of thick fabrics for even a brief venture outside. Sort your clothes as you take them off — straight to laundry if dirty or to a designated hanger or chair if it is to be reused. Don’t leave clothes lying around all over the floor so that kids end up painting it or the cat decides to sleep on it leaving half of his fir spread evenly over your work clothes. This will make it easier to keep up with laundry and to find clothes to wear the next time you go out. It will also take the guess work out of the cleanliness state of any given garment and lessen the number of mismatched socks.

When you bring home groceries, sort them right away:

  • non-perishable foods into the pantry so they don’t clutter up the fridge or the kitchen floor;
  • bulk items into appropriate containers so that you can easily find them and keep track of the quantities remaining;
  • frozen items into the freezer;
  • meat and dairy into the fridge.

Ideally, I like to do some food preparation right after I get groceries: I wash fruit, wash and chop veggies for snacking, put root vegetables into the oven to roast. It helps to have your meals planned for the week before you go grocery shopping, so that you know which ingredients you will need in the next couple of days.

Sort and wash dirty dishes right after the meal — either by hand or in a dishwasher, soak pots right away if needed. It’s extremely unpleasant to face a dirty, disordered kitchen when you want to cook dinner, or having it as the first sight of your day. All your desire for a healthy breakfast might evaporate and lead to a trip to the nearest coffee joint.

When you are done a project, clean up so that unnecessary items do not accumulate on work surfaces, making it harder to set a workspace for the next project. The more things accumulate in one space, the more insurmountable the task of clearing them out becomes, leading to a sense of dread and procrastination on other activities you could be enjoying.

Put things away to where they belong — there is no sense in having temporary storage locations, they’ll only irritate you and you will have to sort through them sooner or later. One of the keys to de-cluttering is to not create clutter in the first place. Generally, if something takes less than 2 minutes to do and you have all the supplies required for it — do it as soon as you discover it. The overhead of coming back to it and figuring out what needs to be done will take you at least another 2 minutes.

Make these quick tips into a habit and save your time for what you really enjoy doing.

Are there any strategies you use on a regular basis to streamline your day? Please share!

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Resolutions? Try something new!

January is the month for the New Year resolutions. This year, resolve to try something new, often.

We get so bogged down in routine that on a rare occasion we surface for air (during holidays or a vacation), we often realize how monotone our life is. We work, we take care of children, we cook, clean, run errands, and manage to get out for an evening once in a blue moon. In all these chores and commitments, we often lose the sense of being alive. I absolutely love the following picture, not sure who to credit for it:

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This time of year when you think on what is important to you, ask yourself whether you have become caught up in the drudgery of existence. Have you lost the sense of wonder you had as a child? How adventurous are you in your day-to-day life?

There is a great song in the Russian version of The Three Musketeers called Pourquoi pas? (Why not?). When someone suggests a seemingly-outlandish activity, don’t ask yourself “Why would I do it?”, ask “Why not?”  Why not try something new? The longer we are entrenched in our routines, the more reluctant we become to step away from the familiar and into an experience that might lead us in an unknown and exciting direction.

I can hear someone say, “What if the activity is risky? Say, someone is inviting me to jump off a plane or do something else that is far out of my comfort zone.” Realize that everything in life has risks — stepping outside is risky, getting behind the wheel of a car is risky. Nothing is risk-free. What we need to consider is the trade-offs and the level of risk we are comfortable with. For some people, jumping off a plane is hardly more adventurous than the bungee jump they did last week. For others, having a spicy Thai dish for dinner is too far outside of their comfort zone. Yet for others, taking a vacation abroad is new, unknown, and fraught with risks. Think of the possible consequences of your choice, weigh the probabilities, and make your decision accordingly. You don’t have to place your life in significant danger to have fun.

bamboo-bridge
Start small – try making a new dish for dinner or a new craft project with the kids. Try a new way home, a new yoga routine, a new dance. Never ice-skated? Try it this winter — even if you don’t end up doing flawless pirouettes on the ice, you might enjoy the exhilaration, and your kids will love the family experience. Come play at a drum circle, try a jigsaw puzzle, pick up a new musical instrument, or try painting. Try a new position in sex, pick up a new hobby, discover a new band, make an effort to meet someone new or get to know one of your acquaintances better. As a baby setting out on their first wobbly-legged exciting and frightening three-step journey, let go of the well-known stable reality and experiment. You always have a safe base with its comforting routine to return to.

Challenge your identity. If you think of yourself as a housewife, you will behave differently than if you think of yourself as a career woman or a stay-at-home-mom, a goddess or a fitness guru. Try things that lie outside of “your main role” and see how your perception of yourself changes. Even if you don’t end up particularly enjoying the experience, you will learn more about your world and about yourself.

In addition to trying out a new activity, consider the tasks you complete day after day. Can you find new and better ways to accomplish what you need while having fun, or ways to optimize your actions leaving more time for you to do what you would rather be doing? Break the mould and seek a new approach. After all, you can always go back if there is no way to improve on your current process. If you are struggling with changing specific habits, you might discover it’s easier to change the undesirable patterns in your life by introducing small changes.

Part of the New Year’s resolutions is making changes in your routine — to spend more time with the people who matter, to take care of your body, to complete planned household projects. Don’t throw away the routine, just resolve to try something new, say, once a week. Seemingly a little change, it will give you over 50 opportunities over the next year to discover new possibilities. How many new things have you learned this past year? Life is short — spice it up with new experiences.

Pourquoi pas?

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Stay zen this holiday season

Holidays tend to be overwhelming, as new responsibilities and chores seem to rapidly pile up on top of the everyday ones. Suddenly, we are expected to attend multiple events, create or purchase a variety of thoughtful gifts, bake delicious treats, decorate the house, and still manage to keep the kids alive, the work done, the house clean, the food made, and stay somehow looking vibrant, beautiful, and non-disheveled after all this. If you are fortunate to have little ones in your life, this pile of to-dos get topped with fewer than desired hours of sleep, combined with frequent colds and short tempers when outside time is less available due to capricious weather. No wonder we end up tired, sick and stressed during this time that is supposed to be full of joy.

champagne1200

Here are a few strategies to make this time less stressful and more enjoyable:

1. Say no to anything you do not see yourself enjoying. There are so many invitations in December coming at us from every organization, friend, and acquaintance. Consider these invitations from the following angles:

  • Picture yourself being present at the occasion. Where are your children? Are you comfortable leaving them with childcare or bringing them with you to the event?
  • Do you see yourself enjoying the event or are you feeling obligated to attend?
  • Do you see your children enjoying the event or can you plan something pleasant for them during that time? (A date with a relative or a familiar babysitter might be fun while you enjoy your outing.)
  • Are there additional responsibilities the event entails? If it’s a potluck, you will be expected to bring a dish (often with accompanying restrictions of it being paleo/vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free, depending on the company). Do you have time and desire to cook or funds to purchase something to bring? Some events might require a gift exchange, others expect you to pay an entry fee, yet others request a donation to a charity or the food bank. If you are not willing to deal with the logistics, perhaps you’d be happier to skip the event.
  • Would you enjoy yourself more just having a date with your partner, having a dinner out, going to the movies, or doing something else? If so, consider declining the invitation, booking a babysitter, and enjoying what you would like to do instead.

2. Plan ahead. Every year many people get caught up in the urgency to send postcards, host holiday parties, bake treats, and purchase gifts. Yet if you start doing some of that throughout the year, you can have a lot more leisure time over the holidays.

  • Many treats can be baked in advance and frozen, like my recently-discovered favourite – gluten- and dairy-free cocoa balls.
  • You can compose the list of people for whom you would like to find gifts or send postcards ahead of time, including their addresses and gift ideas. The cards can even be written over several weeks leading up to the holidays, so that your wrist does not feel like it’s falling off after three hours of non-stop writing. Envelopes and stamps can be purchased in advance, to save money and time at the post office during the days when the line-ups are the longest.
  • Gifts can be purchased throughout the year, on sale. If you are getting closer to the holidays, take advantage of Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and many holiday sales. Doing this in advance will help you keep within the budget and find the most thoughtful and fun gifts.
  • Make the gifts yourself — and if you are feeling adventurous, involve your kids. You can make simple jewelry, greeting cards, various craft projects, baked treats, drawings — even if they do not end up being gifts, kids will cherish the time you spend with them.
  • Hosting holiday parties is not hard. Aside from sending out invitations, making the house presentable, and having a few decorations, it’s easy to host a potluck. Forget fancy dinners and formal parties, unless, of course you enjoy planning those. If you cook for your holiday parties (for instance, I usually have quite a spread, following the Russian tradition of hostess cooking everything), record the list of ingredients and your favourite set of holiday dishes and refer to it in the future, so you don’t have to repeat all the planning steps. I find that a few favourites make their appearance year after year, and it’s easy to swap the main dish and dessert while keeping most of the appetizers the same. Fewer surprises lead to fewer missing ingredients and unfortunate culinary experiments, which in turn means less stress for the hostess.

3. Simplify. You do not have to get everyone multiple gifts and stocking stuffers. Especially with children, the fewer the gifts, the more they are cherished. Giving a child fifteen toys means that only two or three will be played with, leaving the rest to clutter up the floor or the basement. Purchase one or two toys and skip stocking stuffers — most of them are cheap items made without thought and not fulfilling any need or desire, adding to more clutter. You can follow the idea of getting one thing a child needs, one thing they want, one thing to wear, and one thing to read. This way they get clothing which needs to be purchased anyway, another needed item, one item they truly would like, and a book, which is great.

For adults, focus on one item, perhaps two for your partner. Choose it with love and thought. You will likely share a meal as a family, which is a gift in itself, and watching your kids unwrap and play with their presents brings its own joy.

4. Slow down and rest. Prioritize sleep and relaxation, and make the holiday to-dos an extra, not a necessity. Take care of yourself, don’t skip meals, take your supplements, keep up with the exercise. It’s ok to switch it up and do more stretching or dancing instead of, say, weight lifting or cardio. Take a bath, get a massage, diffuse some cinnamon and citrus essential oils. Nourish your body with hot tea, bone broth, vitamins, minerals, love, and attention. It will help you stay healthy throughout this indulgent time of many sweets and sumptuous meals.

5. Do not stress over your choices. Holidays are full with temptations — make your choices and do not regret them. If you feel it is hard to stick to your convictions, take steps in advance:

  • Eat a protein-rich snack before you leave for a gathering with a lot of heavy foods or alcohol.
  • Take a few deep breaths before tasting your food and savour each forkful — you will enjoy it more and likely eat less.
  • Sample sweets in small amounts, it’s only the first few mouthfuls that give us pleasure, by the law of diminishing returns. Don’t feel the obligation to finish up everything on your plate.
  • Drink lots of water, whether you consume alcohol or not.

If you do overindulge, be philosophical about it. Think on the enjoyable aspects of the occasion. This does not happen every day, the discomfort will pass, and there is no need to load up the guilt on top of it. Tomorrow is another day.

6. Overall, cherish the time you get together as a family, when everyone is spending these few lazy slow winter days at home, and life can be taken slowly and thoughtfully. Play games, cook and share delicious meals, read, do puzzles, watch films, rest, listen to music, and remember to breathe. Winter brings out the need for warmth, love, and comfort, and holidays are a perfect time to satisfy that need if we take care not to drown in self-imposed obligations and embrace the flow.

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Much love and light to you and your family this festive season.

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Vary the intensity

Vary the intensity of activities to maximize productivity and balance out work and rest.

Productive Zen Mama - Vary the IntensityJust as effective exercise alternates short bursts of intensity with periods of rest to achieve the best results, so does alternating quiet and intense, mental and physical, prescribed and free-form activities result in higher overall productivity and satisfaction with your reality. How often have you felt that after 4-6 hours of doing the same thing your mind and body are exhausted and yearning for being engaged in a different task? Your problem solving ability plummets, your irritation threshold becomes very small, and your entire being protests the monotony. When I was growing up, I was told: “Switch up the type of activity, and it will feel like rest”. I’m finding this very true as I have to juggle work, childcare, cooking, running a business, and completing various types of projects. When you’ve been programming for 8 hours, an hour of cooking or beading might feel like rest, and vice versa.

If you look at it on a daily scale, alternate cooking, work, taking a walk (to get lunch, to run an errand, to get fresh air, to distract the baby, to get up and move), doing home chores, gardening, tidying up, taking a shower, having a snack, doing a yoga or exercise routine, playing with kids, reading, and sleep. As an example, if you have the flexibility, grab a shower and have breakfast, do a couple of hours of work, followed by tidying up the kitchen and stretching or dancing for 10 minutes, followed by another hour of work, followed by a brisk walk outside, have something to eat, do more work, set dinner to cooking, followed by work, playing with kids, etc. You can tweak it as your time, schedule, appointments, and time with children allows, but let yourself stop doing whatever it is you are doing if you are mentally or physically tired of it. You are not producing optimal results at that stage, and your time is better spent elsewhere. While cooking, playing, or sleeping, you might come up with a solution to a problem that has baffled you when you were staring at it at your workplace.

There is, however, one exception to the switching up the activities: if you are in the state of flow (or “the zone”), you won’t want to stop. The flow happens when we are immersed in solving a problem or performing a task and everything comes naturally, the solution just flows through us and materializes. Poets refer to it as their Muse visiting. Do not interrupt the flow — you won’t want to anyway, likely you won’t even notice the time passing. If you have appointments, make sure you do set alarms that will (unfortunately) pull you out of the flow, otherwise you might miss them, being so engrossed in the task at hand. For most mothers with children at home, the flow is a very rare state, however, so clearing out the distractions and using up short intervals of time available are key.

Where varying the intensity becomes even more powerful, is a weekly scale. During a typical week, try to alternate periods of work, socializing, quiet rest and contemplation, play time with the kids, cooking and family dinners, time to garden, exercise, bathe, read, spend time with your partner, regroup and plan. All of these have different levels or mental and physical involvement, allowing you to vary the extent to which your body and mind are engaged.

I like doing the following mental exercise: imagine comfortably sitting cross-legged on a cushion, in the middle of circle of singing bowls, with sunlight streaming through the window beside you. Each bowl is a part of your life: work, relationship with your partner, relationships with your children, relationships with your parents and siblings, relationships with friends, your mind’s peace, your body and health, your business, and so on. If you have spent some time with your children recently, the note played by your “relationships with children” bowl is clearly ringing, filling your universe with joy. If you have not spent much time with your partner lately, the note from that bowl is barely audible. Listen to each bowl in turn and see which sounds are fading. Over the week, try playing each bowl so that it sings pure and strong in your universe, and so that together all the notes are sounding in beautiful harmony.

We all know that we need a day of quiet rest after a loud party filled with people, music, and interaction. We enjoy lazy weekends after a long week filled with work. And we often long for some adult time after spending many hours with children, only to realize when we  come home that we need to hold the baby right now! At any point during your day when you are not feeling fulfilled or productive, stop and think whether your time would be better spent elsewhere, and if you can — switch the intensity or type of activity, even if for fifteen minutes. You can come back refreshed and with better ideas on how to approach your initial task.

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How to make Waldorf-inspired play silks

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Before my son’s fourth birthday, I searched around for Waldorf-style play silks and found, to my astonishment, that they cost about $15/piece. As I wanted to get him a few silks in different colours, this seemed an exorbitant expense, so I have set out to find a way to make those myself. By the time the supplies have arrived, his birthday was over and I was swamped with getting back to work while taking care of the baby who’s been ill on and off, and trying to recover my system after a drive crashed and took with it not only data but two operating systems as well. This past weekend, I have decided to undertake the silk dyeing project in hopes to get my son excited about making our own toys and to create something that my upset and exhausted from illness baby would enjoy as well. The silks were a success.

Silks

The online instructions differed in amounts of ingredients needed, so after reading everything I could find, I have decided to improvise, and it worked out well. You can get the white 8mm scarves at Dharma Trading Co. I had’t ordered from them before and they have sent me a gift of a while silk 8″ by 54″ scarf with my first order which I thought was a very nice gesture. I bought seven 35″ by 35″ silk shawls and have left the narrower scarf white, to get eight colours in total. With shipping, the order cost me around $50.

Colour

To my astonishment, I was unable to find powdered Kool-Aid in any variety of colours. Normally I wouldn’t touch this stuff with a ten-foot pole, but all the online tutorials called for it and it did seem to present a variety of colours. Surprisingly, now that I actually needed some, I could not find any! Not even at Wal-mart that had an entire isle called “Powedered drinks”! Trying to find some at Loblaws, I have asked a clerk for help. “What do you need it for?”, he asked, and I had to hold my tongue to not say I was planning to start a cult. It ended up residing in the isle with bottled water and only two colours were available. Apparently, since Kool-Aid switched to making liquid concoctions, the powdered stuff is hard to come by. I found a dealer on e-Bay and got an assortment pack of 20 different ones. I have considered using the liquid variant, but reasoned that I would not need an entire bottle, and there is no way I’d be ingesting any of the remainder, so that would have been a waste of money.

In the variety pack the shades of red prevailed, but I was able to come by groups of seven different colours, picking two or three similar colour packets for each shawl. The pack contained only one purple and only one orange, so the two packets are picked up from Loblaws ended up filling that gap.

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Containers

The more even you want your colour to absorb, the larger the container you’d want, to the maximum of the width and length of the size of the fabric. As an extreme, think of a bath tub filled with water enough for the fully-unfolded silk to lay flat and be submerged. This is a scenario to achieve the most uniform colour. However, as you can imagine, a bath tub would require quite a few packets of Kool-Aid to achieve a vibrant colour, a long time to boil and change water for each colour, and involve attempts to remove the stains from tub walls after the fact.

Thus our choices are whatever the kitchen provides, preferably metal or glass so it does not stain (although one of my metal bowls has acquired a faint purple tinge), and the larger the better. If you can keep several containers going in parallel, it will cut down on your dyeing time. The smaller the container, the harder it is to get all parts of the fabric exposed to a colour evenly, so be prepared for some tie-dye like variations. I found it didn’t take away from the lovely colours that resulted.

Vinegar

Vinegar is used to get the colour absorbed well. Some tutorials stated that 2 cups of vinegar are needed for each shawl, yet when I pulled out all the vinegar I had in the house, it was not enough. I ended up putting a cup into each and all the colour got absorbed beautifully. In fact, I have run out of vinegar towards the end and had to split the last cup between two pieces of fabric. The corresponding orange and red shawls came out vibrant anyway. I did soak all the shawls in water with 3 cups of vinegar prior to dyeing each separately, as one tutorial indicated, so I suggest getting lots of vinegar, accounting for 3 cups for the initial soak and a cup for each colour.

Water

Keep the kettle going and a large pot on the stove. As a kettle boiled, I would pour it either into the tubs with the colour that I was preparing, or into a pot of boiling water on the stove if all the receptacles were already containing a dyeing piece of fabric. Have your sink clear so you can rinse the coloured silks and free up containers for the next colour.

Place to dry the silks

I have pulled out a small foldable drying rack from downstairs. Presumably you can hang the fabric anywhere to dry as once all the colour has absorbed it should not stain, and this was the most practical solution for me.

Gloves and large wooden spoons

I suggest wearing gloves while mixing the colour and rinsing the coloured silks (and be prepared to inhale quite a bit of artificial flavour). I got my fingertips blue while mixing, but it washed off in a day or so. I found wooden spoons good for swirling the fabric around in the metal bowls while trying to get all the parts of the silk exposed to the dye as evenly as possible. I didn’t want to use metal to avoid potential tears from sharp edges.

So, here are the steps I used:

Step 1. Soak all the unfolded silks in a pot with cold water and 3 cups of white vinegar while you get things set up. Be sure to unfold each scarf or shawl before dyeing it — it’s easiest to do before soaking, while they are dry.

Ingredients (for one piece of silk fabric):

  • 2-3 Kool-Aid packets of same or similar colour
  • 1 cup white vinegar
  • 3-4 cups of boiling hot water, adjust quantity to fully submerge the fabric in whatever container you are using
  • a deep bowl, preferably metal or glass

Step 2. Empty Kool-Aid packets into the container, add vinegar and hot water, stir to dissolve.

Step 3. Submerge the silk in the mixture, spreading and swirling it around.

Step 4.Wait until all the colour is leached from the water into the silk – the water should be almost transparent.

Step 5. Dump the water out, rinse the silk under cold water, wring it, smooth it out and hang to dry.

Repeat steps 2 to 6 for however many silks you wish to dye.

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The dyeing itself was not difficult or very time-consuming. I had four bowls going in parallel, so I only needed to do two batches for 7 scarves. The blue, green, and orange came out very vibrant. Yellow and pink resulted in softer shades. (The pink photo did not come out so well as my camera decided to die at that time, and I had to switch to a toy one.) The red is bright and reminds me of a Soviet pioneer tie (oh, the childhood memories). The purple is a little too uneven, but that’s just because it was dyed in the smallest bowl. I’m not a huge fan of this shade – perhaps next time I would mix blue and red to see if a move vibrant colour would result.

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The silks came out lovely. My son enjoyed watching the process and couldn’t wait until they were dry so he could play with them. The baby loved them too — it’s her favourite game these days to pull every piece of fabric over her head and settle it on her shoulders like a cape. She’s also been draping the coloured silk over her head, pulling it off in a peek-a-boo manner and giggling profusely.

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Only a couple of days later the blue shawl has become a river with a bridge across it, the green — a forest, and the pink — a flower meadow. These silks do make great toys.

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Just keep moving

Move throughout the day between sitting, standing, walking, bending, squatting, lying down. It’s not about finding a perfect position — it is about changing positions frequently.

Productive Zen Mama - Just Keep MovingDuring the time of industrial revolution, many people worked at factories, standing for hours on end. People who worked those jobs would tell you — it’s no picnic. Getting a position where you would sit instead was considered prestigious, as you got to “rise above” the physical labour. However, these days sitting is the new smoking — more and more research is coming out about negative effects of prolonged sitting. As an answer to that, a standing desk has been introduced and some office workers who can afford it (or whose company can) have been enthusiastically switching to standing desks in an attempt to rip the benefits of not sitting.

Standing, however, is not a panacea. The human body has not been designed to stay in one position — be it sitting, standing, or lying down, — and there are consequences to this rigid adherence to a single way of holding your body throughout the day. People who are forced to stay in bed for a prolonged period of time, due to sickness or mobility issues, suffer from loss of muscle strength and bone density, fatigue and shallower breathing, increased risk of blood clots and pneumonia due to heart and lung muscles not working well, bed sores, mental health issues, as well as digestive and hormonal imbalance. Staying in one position throughout the day means that the load falls on the same muscles, developing or injuring some muscles and weakening the others. Doing this day after day can lead to chronic conditions.

The key is in varied constant movement. The true usefulness of a standing desk is that you should be able to change its height to sit and stand interchangeably. There are also walking desks, with a treadmill next to the desk, but once again, you don’t want to be walking for 8 hours a day without stop — the key is to switch up what it is you do. During humanity’s hunter-gatherer years, humans sprinted over short distances, stalked, tracked and crouched in the bushes hunting prey, they squatted and bent gathering berries and roots, collecting firewood, making fire. They sat on logs, hip- and back-carried their babies around, sat cross-legged to sharpen weapons and tell stories. They were not sitting in one position all day long. What we need to do is find ways to get as much movement into our days that are often filled with computer work, office jobs, driving and watching TV while sitting on the couch.

Easier said than done, right? Well, even those of us who work primarily at a computer, can move a bit, even without a standing desk. Here are some ideas:

Get up regularly — at least once an hour for 10 minutes or so. Get a cup of tea, a glass of water, or a snack. Use the washroom. Pop outside for a couple of minutes to get some fresh air and vitamin D. Do a few stretches or dance to a song.

You don’t have to stop working in order to change positions: you can take your phone calls or video conference calls standing up, you can tilt your screen up and read while standing, you can take a laptop outside and sit on the grass, or cross-legged on the floor indoors if the weather is not computer-friendly. You can even walk away from the computer with a pen and paper to ponder a particular challenge without interruption. I find that making notes for writing, thinking up use cases, or putting down logical steps to an algorithm is often easier on paper, away from electronic distractions and the urge to dive into writing or coding without prior planning.

Go for a short walk — lunch hour is great for this. In warm weather, you can grab your lunch and go for a picnic at a nearby park, back yard, or on the lawn.

Do a short yoga routine, dance, jump rope, spin a hula hoop. Even a fifteen-minute break doing something physically active will engage those muscles that stay dormant while you work. I found that after a walk or a physically-engaging break, I came back to mentally-intensive work with a fresh outlook and a more resourceful state.

Stretch your calves. Prolonged sitting shortens our calves which in turn affect the alignment of our entire body, making it harder and harder to break out of the sitting mold as it becomes more difficult to do other things that require flexibility. I highly recommend calf stretches by Katy Bowman (and her entire site, for that matter). You can do them while standing at your desk and reading an article.

Do exercises that engage different muscles while sitting at your desk, waiting in line, driving, watching your kids, and doing other things you are doing anyway. Once again, Katy Bowman has some great suggestions.

Look into possibilities to rest at home without using the couch. We have made a bold move to get rid of our old couch that was full of flame retardant chemicals and nearly-shredded by our cat, with the baby starting to pick up the shreds off the floor. We now have a few cushions and ottomans scattered around the living room, and are changing our resting positions frequently as we play with the kids on the floor, read, breastfeed, and watch films. We are not missing the couch. In fact, I have noticed that whereas before I might plop down on the couch to catch my breath, I now get down on the floor with the kids to play or take a couple minutes sitting cross-legged on a cushion to take a few deep breaths and regroup. It is much easier to find motivation to get up off a cushion and engage in something meaningful than to extract myself from a couch.

Swap your chair for a yoga ball. I do all my puzzles sitting on a yoga ball and I love it.

There is a illustration with a variety of chair-free positions from around the world catalogued by an anthropologist Gordon Hewes to give you some ideas. Give them a try. I have a poster with these positions on the wall of the living room, to supply ideas for sitting positions when playing with kids on the floor.

Learn about body alignment — how we hold our body throughout the day has a profound impact on all the muscles, joints, bones, and everything else. In an improperly-aligned car, parts that bear more strain than they should wear down. The same thing happens with a human body. If, say, you exercise for an hour a day, how you stand, sit, and move throughout the other 23 hours has a much greater impact on your posture and health than what you while you exercise. We are constantly shaping our body through every movement we make, so it is good to develop some habits around the optimal ways to sit, stand, and walk. This lessens the time and effort needed to deal with chronic conditions that result from body parts that carry the strain they should not. Katy Bowman has some great books out there, including Move Your DNA and Alignment Matters which I highly recommend. You can also learn a lot about alignment on her blog, katysays.com.

Human beings are meant to move. If you don’t use all of your muscles, those you do not use will weaken and eventually atrophy. My baby can put her feet behind her head. She can also lie her belly on the floor while sitting down with legs apart. I know some adults that are able to do that, so it’s not the aging itself that prevents the rest of us from doing so — it’s the lack of movement. So let’s move!

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Seven-year wedding anniversary

This past week has marked the seventh wedding anniversary for me and my partner. It came just a few days after our second baby turned a year old. To my surprise, most people reacted strangely to me saying that I feel a strong need to acknowledge and celebrate this milestone. They either congratulated us on avoiding relationship problems so far or mentioned a “seven-year itch” with a knowing smirk.

We did not wait to pass this specific milestone to let out a sigh of relief and say — well, we made it to seven years! Everything from now on is going to be peachy, because we managed to avoid this mystical “seven-year itch” of which everyone is so terrified. We celebrate every year on this day. We celebrate our family frequently and independently of the calendar, but it feels good to have a day set aside every year which we dedicate to each other and reflect on our relationship and all the wonderful things it brings into our lives. The number seven has always resonated with me for whatever reason: there are seven notes of the musical scale, seven chakras in the body, seven colours of the spectrum. I felt that celebrating this anniversary was important to me, and I think that is the best reason to celebrate anything. We need to create ceremonies meaningful to us for events that matter in our lives, not anyone else’s. And so we have planned this day in a way that nurtured our relationship.

It puzzles and saddens me that a healthy desire to acknowledge and honour a relationship is somehow perceived as a declaration that we “managed” to stay together thus far. This trend to state things from a negative point of view is rampant in our culture. “So, you’ve survived to seven years – congratulations, many do not.” Why bring that up? Should it make me feel superior to those who do not? Should I dwell on all the dysfunctional relationships and broken families, instead of focusing on celebrating my relationship?

“Are you pregnant? I had the worst labour imaginable!”, followed by a lengthy horror birth story. Why on Earth would a pregnant mama dwell on someone else’s negative experience instead of preparing herself for her own birth positively. We do this with regards to children’s milestones too. “Is the baby breastfeeding well? Wait until she gets teeth!” Why cannot I be happy that the baby is breastfeeding well now? Why would I rather dwell on possible challenges that might arise in the future when she starts teething?

No wonder we are so stressed all the time! Many of us are so engrossed in imagining all the terrible alternative realities and future difficulties (usually making them out to be much worse than anything realistic) that any feeling of happiness in the present gets drowned out. We keep hauling around this negative baggage and don’t miss an opportunity to load it onto someone else. And we walk away from these conversations with a sense of fulfilment of our duty to enlighten and warn others of all the possible negative repercussions of their situation.

We are the narrators of our lives and of the lives of the people we know. We evaluate and judge each event, and whatever label we put on it will colour our memory of the event and help shape our perception of the event’s participants, the society at large, and, in the end, our perception of ourselves. If I keep thinking of myself as someone who cannot dance, I will convince myself that I cannot dance and will never try, because my inability to dance will become a part of my identity. If I keep thinking all people are out to take advantage of me, that will become the world in which I live. If we keep telling our child they cannot draw, they will become convinced that is the case and might never let their creative side unfold fully.

If I keep telling myself I’m insignificant, I will be making decisions that always put other people’s wishes before mine, eventually causing other people to do that too. This latter train of thought is a dangerous one, as women who get trapped in abusive relationships can be convinced that they are not worthy of any other treatment, which enables the abuser to keep up the physical or emotional violence. We define who we are. When we cannot control the circumstances, we can still control how we perceive them and react to them.

If your life experience tells you that most relationships do not last past a certain number of years or break up from difficulties of early childrearing, you will perceive your relationships and those of the people around you through the lens of suspicion and with an expectation of failure. Partners celebrating their relationship would translate to you into people trying to save a family that is falling apart or congratulating each other on surviving the years together. From that vantage point, it is very hard to see a wedding anniversary celebration as honouring the relationship, recalling the good times, acknowledging the challenges, and appreciating the other person for walking this road with you.

It is not always a smooth road — life rarely is — but we can focus on the positive aspects of it and strengthen the relationship. It is too easy to take things for granted in a relationship — meaningful ceremonies remind us of all the wonderful things we bring into each other’s reality. So let us celebrate! And the next time a friend shares with you news of something good happening in their life — hold off your warnings and just be happy for them.

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Shift your pattern by changing one thing

If you feel you are stuck in a routine you do not enjoy, try altering it in small ways. Before you know it, small changes might carry you into a more enjoyable reality.

We are so entrenched in our routines, often doing the same thing day after day or following the same steps (not always the most effective) in order to complete a particular task. We are firing the same neurons and reinforcing the same neural pathways. Yet we can gain much from altering some of our habits, removing or changing steps, or dropping certain habits altogether.

The patterns into which we fall take many shapes, as each of us has different indulgences, dislikes, and experiences. Some people cannot fathom starting their day without a cup of coffee, others have a sugary snack every time they need an energy boost. Some frequently order unhealthy take-out, others stay up late even when they know they need to be up early, yet others use shopping as therapy. Some turn to pharmaceuticals, street drugs, or alcohol every time they need to alter their state. Some drop their things in random places when they walk through the door, resulting in frantic search for keys or wallet as they are running late the next day. We all know our less-than-optimal habits.

Yet it is at times so hard to break out of our routines. It is daunting to do things differently – change brings with it the unknowns. What if this doesn’t work? What if there are unexpected consequences? What if this takes longer? What if I don’t have everything I need, since this is a new way of doing things? Change is hard. That’s why societies keep trudging along for years under poor leadership, reluctant to attempt changing the known evil/inefficiency for an unknown hazy possibility of a better reality.

Unfamiliar is uncomfortable, often due to our perception of its difficulty and ease of sticking to what we know. Yet the only way for us to learn better ways of doing things, to expand our skill set, and to grow intellectually and emotionally is to change our patterns and try new approaches.

Try starting small and change one thing about your day:

  • drive a different route to explore your surroundings;
  • move furniture around to change your spacial perception;
  • try a new cuisine to expand your palate;
  • go to bed early to change your morning outlook;
  • dress differently to explore a different aesthetic and observe how other people’s perception of you changes;
  • step onto a yoga mat and be present, even for 5 minutes, to see how that alters how you feel in your body;
  • listen to a new song to alter your mood (try an upbeat one if you tend to listen to quiet pensive melodies, or vice-versa);
  • exchange your coffee for a tea or your sugary snack for scrambled eggs and see how your energy levels are;
  • don’t check your email or social networks before you go to bed and see if your sleep is more restful.

If you tend to explode at your children’s noisy pursuits, try taking a deep breath before you let a scream out. You might find that you don’t need to respond in an irritated manner. Perhaps you might even feel that approaching the situation with curiosity instead of anger would help you find out what’s so fascinating about jumping on the bed while holding onto a curtain and singing “London bridge is falling down” in a piercing falsetto.

Change of established routines is recommended as prevention and mitigation for people with multiple sclerosis and dementia: driving a different route, learning words in a new language, doing puzzles, solving riddles, memorizing new things. All of these activities build new neural pathways, keeping the brain active. Looking at your reality from a different vantage point is also a way to alleviate depression and can help when feeling anxious.

What you will often discover is that once you change one small part of your pattern, it becomes easier to do it in another area. This means that in a situation where change is necessary, you will be less stressed, more willing to try new things, and more inspired to find alternative solutions to a problem that might seem unsolvable at first glance. You can feel liberated from artificial constraints that guide your daily routines and shape a better reality.

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Lemongrass, comfrey, lemon verbena harvest and preservation

Kale towers

Kale towers

My November garden still produces kale and Swiss chard, so lots of smoothies are happening in addition to blanching and freezing kale for the winter. I have harvested more tomatoes, my huge lemongrass and lemon verbena plants, comfrey, and butternut squash. Below are some resources I have found useful in the process.

Lemon verbena and lemongrass

Lemon verbena and lemongrass plants before harvest

Lemongrass

I have harvested lemongrass, peeled and froze the stems chopped into 2-3 inch pieces. The leaves I have hung out to dry and then cut them with scissors into smaller pieces to preserve them for making tea. I have transplanted the remaining plant into a pot, from which it was even growing new shoots for a few days. It seems to have gone dormant, however, so I’ll see whether it will survive the winter.

Lemon Verbena

I have collected lots of lemon verbena leaves – the plant has grown huge. I’ve frozen quite a few leaves and hung the remaining ones to dry for a week or so, at which point I have collected the leaves and stored them crushed to make tea in winter. I have transplanted the verbena into a pot as well. It instantly went into a defensive state and dropped all the remaining leaves which I have also collected for tea. A few days later young leaves have appeared in few places, but then dried off again. I shall see what happens with it over the winter. There is an interesting recipe for a glass cleaner that I might want to try next year.

Comfrey

In the manner similar to drying lemon verbena and lemongrass, I have hung the comfrey leaves up to dry as well. After about a week, I’ve collected and crushed them. Comfrey can be used in poultices and perineum baths.

Tomato

I have collected a few tomatoes for seeds and have followed the GardenWeb directions. The seeds are now dry and stored in small envelopes with a moisture-whisking packet.

Butternut squash

Only one squash has matured in the shade of my tomato forest, but it has made a delicious curried butternut soup. I have washed and dried the seeds to save them for next year.

Butternut squash

Butternut squash

Basil and hot Thai peppers

The other two plants I have moved into pots and brought inside were basil and hot Thai peppers. Unfortunately, both of them are rather unhappy about it. The basil plant promptly dried up (which always happens with basil in my house) and I’ve collected the leaves for cooking. The Thai pepper plant went into shock ripening many of the little peppers that were previously green and drying up the leaves. I’m unsure whether it will survive.

The birds are loving the bird feeder – it seems there’s little else for them to eat but our sunflower seeds. My son and I refill the feeder at least once a week, and the birds make quite a flurry of activity in the garden, which our cat intently watches. It has been fun gardening this year. I shall probably harvest another large batch of kale to blanch and freeze, collect the green tomatoes to be ripened inside, cover the grape vines, and will leave the towers standing for the winter. More permaculture adventures next year.

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Zen Transition to Motherhood – Is there life after birth?

The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.
— William Ross Wallace

Zen Transition to MotherhoodFor over three years, I have attempted to consolidate the bits of knowledge pertaining to the first year of the baby’s life: the challenges faced by the mama after birth, the baby care tips, the profound shift in perception of reality, coming into the new identity, and rebuilding daily routines around the new family structure. This year I have finally decided to put it into the form of an e-book, in hopes to help other mamas transition into this new phase of their life in a peaceful, loving way.

You might pick up this book while you are pregnant or shortly after you give birth. At its core there are gentle parenting principles and a common sense approach to reality. The key to productive zen is being present and enjoying the journey, and the book covers a variety of strategies for a smooth, peaceful babymoon and fourth trimester.

Stress has been shown to impact our health and ability to enjoy life. Stress is bombarding us every day in the form of external demands and internal pressures, and unless we learn to control the way we respond to stress, it can seriously affect our mental, emotional, and physical health. With the changing hormones and powerful emotions around the time of birth, we are so very vulnerable as new mamas — we need to find a way to get centered, to be present in each moment for ourselves, our babies, and our families.

In the book, I look in detail into the early postpartum weeks and discuss resources to let mama rest and recover after the birth, how to set up a meal train, address mama’s and baby’s health challenges, good supplies to have on hand, and ways to relax and find your center. The second part of the book goes into practical matters of harnessing the new routine, getting chores under control, mastering errands with the baby, and handling commitments. I also suggest many gentle ideas for entertainment and rest, so that we do not only feed our body, but feed our creative selves as well.

I hope that this book serves as a grounding, centering companion for new mamas. The book Zen Transition to Motherhood – Is there life after birth? is available for free at ProductiveZenMama.com.

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Speak softly love

Here is a short excerpt from the e-book on which I am currently working — Zen Transition to Motherhood — Is there life after birth? It offers new mamas strategies for a smooth, peaceful babymoon and fourth trimester. I wrote this yesterday and felt I needed to share it.

speakSoftlyLoveSo many emotions are coursing through us in these early postpartum days, not all of them positive. We might be experiencing frustration, helplessness, fear, feelings of incompetence or anger. Be sensitive to your state and make a conscious effort to not express the negative emotions in the interactions with your baby. The more you smile and speak the words of love, the lighter will your mood be and the easier you will find it to go through a day at times of doubt.

Meet your waking up baby with a smile and kind words each time. Make every time they see you a wonderful occasion. Thank your baby for bringing joy into your life. Tell them you appreciate an hour they napped to give you a chance to have a cup of tea and brush your hair. Show them they are a welcome presence in your universe.

When they are crying, tell them you understand. Talk to the baby when changing a diaper or getting them dressed for an outing. Your calm voice will help reassure the baby and soothe them. Kiss and hold your baby often — gentle touch and love are as important to a growing human being as food is.

Speak to your baby about your day — they love your voice. They have heard it in the womb, it is comforting and familiar to them. Sing to your baby — they will be fascinated by this incredible thing you do with your voice. Share your gratitude ritual with your baby — tell them of all the things you are grateful for this day and of everything you have accomplished.

This little person loves you with all their being. We go through much of our lives looking for unconditional love, for someone who will listen to us, understand us, sleep next to us, smile at us, and go through our ups and downs alongside us. Here is such a being. Treasure this relationship.

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Tomato, green beans, and kale harvest and preservation

garden in the sun, inside, md

The weather was not cold and quite refreshing this past Sunday, and so my partner and the kids decided to have an impromptu barbeque and harvest some of our permaculture garden‘s bounty. My almost-four-year-old son was intrigued enough to join me for negotiating the kale plants and crawling the tomato jungle to extract the ripe specimen. We ended up with two large heaps of kale and two large bowls of tomatoes.

kale tomato harvest light, md
As my son and I have collected our treasure, the sausages were ready, and we sat down to a simple supper of sausages, steamed broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, hummus, stir-fried green beans with onions, and fresh cherry tomatoes just off a bush.

Once the supper was done, I have set out to wash and sort tomatoes. The split ones went directly into the blender for a cold tomato soup. As I didn’t have cucumber or celery this time, I have put in some bok choy leaves I had in the fridge. All the ingredients were piled up in the blender, ready to be refrigerated until the next day, when it took one minute for me to get a freshly-blended cold tomato soup for lunch.

After the sorting and putting the split tomatoes aside for the soup, I have ended up with two bowls – one with large beefsteak tomatoes, only some of them ripe, and a full heaping bowl of smaller, cherry, and plum tomatoes. The beefsteak tomatoes were so heavy that most of them were lying on the ground, to the sheer pleasure of various slugs and bugs. I have made an executive decision of ripening them off the vine, so as to have a chance at us, and not the bugs, consuming them.

Three of these tomatoes were quite ripe, however, and so I have made a simple pasta sauce guided by the following recipe. I have substituted some of the herbs, adding dill (as I had a lot of it) and lots of fresh basil from the garden.

tomato sauce pot, md

The pasta sauce came out delicious and I have frozen several containers of it for the future.

tomato sauce, md
I have decided to freeze most of the kale for future use in smoothies, soups, and salads, and to put aside an equivalent of a store-bought bunch of kale to make a kale quinoa salad.

The kale freezing process involved stripping kale leaves of the hard veins, ripping them into smaller pieces, and washing them. This was done in batches, followed by blanching the washed leaves: throwing them into boiling water for about 3 minutes, dunking them into an ice bath with a slotted spoon, draining them, drying them a bit, and then stuffing them into ice trays. Once they were frozen, I have popped them out, sorted them into zip lock bags, and placed them in the freezer. The two large heaps of kale resulted in just under 6 ice trays and a salad.

frozen kale, md
For the large quantity of smaller tomatoes, I have decided to make oven version of sun-dried tomatoes. They came out delicious and I have since been adding them as toppings on salads and hot dishes.

oven-dried tomatoes, md

Inspired by my tomato and kale adventures, the next day I have gathered some of my scarlet runner bean pods — those that looked the most full and ready. There are still a few ripening ones, so I have left them for later.

green beans, md
I have then peeled them and will be following the instructions from EarthEasy to dry and save them for seeds, as there are not that many of them.

beans, md

The garden is beautiful, and it is a pleasure to spend time surrounded by its lush greenery. Being in the midst of the leaves whispering in the wind, butterflies and buzzing beetles zooming about, birds chirping at the bird feeder, and ripe fruit hanging in the depths of my tomato forest, gets me breathing deeply, letting go of fatigue, and feeling grateful for this green ecosystem full of life, on my doorstep.

garden in the sun, kale, md

View from under the gazebo

towers, md

Tomatoes covering Towers 1 and 2

garden from the window, md

View from inside the house that brightens my day without fail

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We cast. Hands empty, we wait.

In the early days of my relationship with my partner, he gave me a book to read. It was called “Faded Sun”, by C.J. Cherryh. I have since read many of her works, and she has become one of my favourite science fiction authors. However, “Faded Sun” has a special place in my heart, as one humanoid species in it — mri — have articulated a key principle I have harnessed in my life. The mri play shon’ai — the passing game. They sit in a circle and pass objects to each other, in no particular order, by throwing them. Warrior cast plays with knives, whereas other casts play with stones or wands. The objective is to catch the object thrown to you and pass it along, always being ready to catch and pass the next one.

“One plays shon’ai,” said Niun, “to deserve to live, to feel the mind of the People. One throws. One receives. We play to deserve to live.
We cast. Hands empty, we wait. And we learn to be strong.”
Faded Sun, C.J. Cherryh

This metaphor for life is very close to my heart, even more so for our life in this information age, where there are so many things coming our way on any given day and we need to process, deflect, absorb, enhance, and pass the information on. The best way, I find, is to take it as it comes, calmly, not losing concentration on what is important, and let go of the attachment to the result, to receive and cast without fear or hesitation, and wait for the next thing to come our way.

We cast. Hands empty, we wait.

In childbirth, we can have the best plan of how we would like things to go, yet we must not hold on to the “perfect birth” idea, as every birth unfolds in its own way. All we can do as challenges come up is make decisions that are consistent with our research and understanding, choose the course of action we believe to be the best, and let go of the outcome. If we make each decision in agreement with our values, the outcome will be the best it can be for that particular birth.

In work, we can attack a given task as it needs doing, do our best, and cast it into the world. We are then ready to receive the next task, holding no attachment to the outcome of the previous task. We do our best at anything thrown to us (in the game of shon’ai doing anything less might mean death) and send it out into the world. We don’t dwell on it until it comes back, at which point we do our best once more, before sending it on.

In parenting, we make decisions every day. We choose how to address a tantrum, what to feed the child, how to dress them for a given environment, how to stimulate the child’s development, what game to play, what book to read, what song to sing, what routine to try. Every decision is the universe’s way of throwing a challenge at you and make you choose what you will do. Once the decision is made, the action performed, you don’t have a chance to undo it. You move on and wait for an opportunity to do it again, differently if you so desire. With the changing needs, personality, and developmental capabilities of a child, the only way you can effectively parent is to not accept an illusion that something that works now will work the next time you try it. Instead, you pick a solution every time a challenge presents itself, with full knowledge that you can get a completely different result than you did the time before.

We cast.

This means not lingering when making a decision. It means using all of your strength, resources, and current knowledge to address the issue and to move on without regret. You’ve picked a path, now you can walk it until the next crossroads, where you can pick your way once again.

Hands empty, we wait.

This means no fidgeting in the meantime and second-guessing yourself. This means being at peace with your past decisions. You cannot change the past. You do not look back  — you wait until a chance presents itself to act in the present. Meanwhile, you wait in peace.

We cannot possibly hold in our mind every challenge that needs a decision in our future. (That’s what time planners and calendars are for.) We would drive ourselves mad trying to remember everything that’s going on in our life on any given week. The key is to realize that the only thing that matters at any given moment is what we are doing at that moment. Be fully present for what you are doing now. We need to be ready for future challenges, yet we should not dwell on the past ones.

To be mri is to play the Game, its player-to-player, hand-to-hand passing rhythm “as old as time and as familiar as childhood.” To play the game is to cast oneself — one’s fate — forth from the hand, to let go, to make the leap forward freely, and without fear.
The Faded Sun Trilogy, a review by Charlene Brusso

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Permaculture garden first tomato harvest

After some time we had without power, I refused to go back to the electronic world. Instead, I took the baby into the garden, and she happily played while I dodged tomato branches and searched for hidden ripe treasures in the jungle that my garden has become. In the process, I have discovered a ripe red Romanian pepper, quite a few Thai hot peppers – still green but promising, two surprise butternut squashes (and by “surprise” I mean that as I was looking for tomatoes, I have bumped into a squash hanging from a tower), lots of kale, and an abundance of scarlet runner bean pods.

My tomato jungle did not disappoint. I have discovered lots of tiny red grape tomatoes, larger red cherry tomatoes, tiny yellow tomatoes, plum tomatoes, and large red tomatoes. Lots are still in the ripening stage, but I was able to gather about a bowl and a half just by picking those that were already so ripe they couldn’t hang on anymore. Quite a few overripe tomatoes are on the ground – the sacrifice to the fauna of the garden, which is joyfully munching on the cast-aways.

First tomato harvest, md

The birds have discovered the bird feeder and made it their own. Not a day goes by without me seeing quite a few there, happily partaking in the sunflower seeds. Some of the plants are trying to bail from the garden: the beans, the tomatoes, and a squash have surpassed the boundaries and are running wild on the other side of the fence. Surprisingly enough, people who cut grass in the common area have been very gentle so far and have worked around the escapees.

As I was making my way around the towers, I have brushed against the lemongrass, and  does it ever smell divine! I don’t know if it has been effective at keeping undesirable insects from the garden, as advertised, but it sure smells good. We shall see how it fares in a Tom Kha Gai soup once the harvest time is on.

For now, I had quite a few tomatoes to make use of, and so I decided to make a cold tomato soup. My son helped me sort through the tomatoes, keeping the whole ones for future use and getting the split ones washed and cut up for the soup. The recipe is simple, and I just winged it as I went, putting in whatever compatible veggies I had in the fridge.

Tomato soup, md

Cold tomato soup:
– about 6 cups of various types of tomatoes,
– a cucumber,
– a red pepper,
– about 6 celery stalks (whatever I had in the fridge),
– 2 segments of onion, soaked in water for 5 minutes,
– 2 garlic cloves, split in half,
– 2 tbsp olive oil,
– 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar.

I have blended everything together in two batches in my Blendtec mixer, added basil leaves from the garden for garnish and some salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste. This made a refreshing cold soup for a lazy summer afternoon. In fact, I just had some today for lunch, and I must say – it keeps well in the fridge overnight.

So far this summer of gardening has been very rewarding.

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Loss of power or gain of time?

It had been a very productive and busy morning this past Friday: I’ve taken care of many errands and was setting things up to have a no-distraction writing session in the afternoon. The baby drifted off to sleep, I tucked her in, and came downstairs to get into the zone. Unexpectedly, the room appeared quite dark, and, as I looked out the window, I realized that it was due to a large storm cloud hanging ominously overhead. The thunderstorm hit in about two minutes – just enough time for me to pull the stroller inside from the back yard.

I had foresight enough to save all of my work on the computer, just before the power started fluctuating. In a couple more minutes, I heard a gust of wind outside and a loud bang upstairs as the bedroom door slammed shut. I rushed upstairs and found the baby wide-eyed and awake, the plexiglass cover from above the air conditioner gone, air conditioner itself threatening to plunge down, and sheets of rain coming through the now-open window, soaking the curtains, the walls, and the two puzzles mounted on one of the walls.

In a few minutes, I have managed to put some towels on the floor, and half-lowered half-dropped the air conditioner (my, are those things heavy!) onto the towels, with the rain lashing through the window and water coming out of the AC. A few more moments, and I was able to remove the protective foam padding we had for the AC from the window sill and slide the window shut.

Results: soaked walls, floor, puzzles, curtains, AC, and myself, baby awake and unhappy to be so. A change of clothes later, the baby in my arms, we’ve descended downstairs to discover that the power had gone out in the entire building. So much for an uninterrupted writing session.

I have fed the baby, and, once the rain was over, we went out to examine the damage. Our gazebo miraculously stayed put (thanks to all the grapevines, tomato vines, and bean stalks firmly wrapped around its supports. A neighbour’s gazebo was not as sturdy, it appears. I have searched the nearby yards for the plexiglass that got ripped out of our window, and have found two pieces in another neighbour’s yard. My partner has later located the third piece on the other side of the building, presumably deposited there by the wind.

At this point, it was around 4pm, and we had no connection with the outside world, except for a cell phone, which is not, should I say, smart. That is, it’s a phone without a collection of apps or a data plan. I’ve been mostly wondering whether (a) my son’s daycare had the luck of not losing power, and (b) how large of an area has been affected and how long it would take to restore the power. I finally got through to my partner, after trying for over half an hour, and he said he would take care of finding that out. There I was, with a tired baby fighting sleep, at least two hours to wait to find out the details once my partner and son got home, and no way to do work. This could have been an annoying setback. I could have focused on the fact that I would not get any work done that day, and stressed over it. But I strive to shape my own reality, so instead, I have chosen to look at it as an opportunity for electronic detox.

For an hour or so, I read a wonderful book on Waldorf philosophy – Beyond the Rainbow Bridge – and the baby, surprisingly, was happily playing nearby, occasionally getting my attention for a feed, a change, or an engagement with a toy. When my people got home, they brought dinner, so we didn’t have to figure out the cooking arrangements without electricity. My chief concern was that if the outage lasted longer than 24 hours, we would have to find a way to relocate the contents of our freezer to someone with power and freezer space, or all the food would spoil. Aside from that, things were not bad.

We spent some time outside with what felt like the entire neighbourhood. Kids were out of doors as no electronic means of distraction were available. Adults came out, smiled, made meals together, borrowed necessities, and talked long through the night. The place felt alive. We came inside, pulled out the bongos and maracas, and sang and played in candlelight. Later the rain started again, although not as strong. The kids had a bath with candles lighting the room, and we told stories and sang songs. We ended up going to sleep early, in a true darkness, for a change, as opposed to the bright outside lights that usually penetrate our windows at night.

In the morning, we were the first ones up and out, it seems. My partner dug out an old propane camping stove, and we made delicious farm-raised eggs with organic tomatoes, sprinkled with cayenne pepper, and boiled some water for tea.

lossOfPowerBreakfastsm

He had a massage appointment that morning (the massage place got the power back at 8:30am) and took both of our phones with him, to charge them there. In the meantime, I stayed home with kids, played floor games, read books, made a necklace with my son, had some snacks, and sang more songs. My partner got home, and around 12:30, as we were putting the children down for a nap, the power came back up.

A friend of mine was going camping that weekend. I gather, it didn’t happen since the rain was so strong. Without planning it, we managed to have a “camping” adventure at home with flashlights and candles, without noise and electronic distractions, with a breakfast cooked in the fresh morning air, a dark night, and an early rising. It has been a wonderful energetic reset where we took things slowly and enjoyed each others’ company, letting work and interruptions wait.

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