Bedtime Stories Are My Abiding Delight

I am a big believer in making time, and lots of it, for books before bed.  My family was even interviewed about it once by Andrea Gordon at the Toronto Star.

Four years later, and the boys are bigger and, significantly, they play a lot more hockey.  All three boys play competitive hockey, and we make 10-12 trips to the rink a week.  This is a good thing, mostly, and I’m a little bit proud and a lot relieved to be raising kids who are so eager to be fit and healthy and active.  (Not my DNA.)  However, hockey eats into time for all kinds of things: playdates, family dinners, unstructured time, and, yes, bedtime stories.

Time is never found, it’s made, and I make time for bedtime reading whenever it’s remotely possible, which is still usually four times a week of an hour of reading aloud before bed.  I am a stickler for bedtimes, because some of us are quite cranky if we don’t get a full night’s sleep, even if some of us are in our forties.  But if I can squeeze in a chapter before Youngest’s bedtime, I will always go the extra mile to do so.  I’m now reading aloud to Youngest and Middlest, and it’s all Harry Potter all the time.  After Youngest pops off to bed, Middlest reads by himself, sometimes curled up with me and my book, and sometimes for up to two hours before it’s time for his lights out.  (Definitely my DNA.)  It’s a magical time.  I am so profoundly grateful for it.

endgameEldest does not read with predictable regularity any more, though, and that saddens me.  He is at the rink most often, and he comes home late.  He will occasionally get immersed in a series, but it’s not a dependable thing.  I recently heard an interview that impressed me so much, I went out and bought the book for him.  (Seriously, go listen to this interview: James Frey being interviewed by a boy named Joshua for The Guardian.  It’s not often I am more impressed by the interviewer than the interviewee, but this kid is sharp.)  Anyway, I learned from this interview that James Frey’s new YA novel The Calling, the first in the Endgame trilogy, has a puzzle built into it, and the first person to solve the puzzle has a chance to win $500,000 of James Frey’s own dollars, currently sitting in a vault in Las Vegas in gold bars.  “This will get his attention,” I thought.  I’m glad to say that while it did get his attention, and while he did find my enthusiasm about the interview infectious, he did not make a huge effort to read the book quickly to solve the puzzle to win the gold.

Reading should be its own reward, and I’m glad that money was not sufficient enticement.  I have a quiet faith that one day, when there is somewhat less hockey (and soccer and basketball and swimming) on his schedule, Eldest will make his way back to daily and lengthy engagements with a book.  Reading is my abiding delight, and I do so want them to have that kind of pleasure in their daily lives.

November Nights

10409459_10154861075470014_5627303319057549844_n[1]At the gym this morning, after his swimming lesson, Littlest said to a woman in the changing room that he had already practiced hockey, built Lego, had Second Breakfast and watched television that day.  It was 11:00.  He wasn’t doing a kid’s version of an adult’s litany of I’m so busy; he was just answering her question about how his morning had been.  It had been full.  And so was his afternoon: we walked home from the gym, grabbed warm milk to go on the way, raked leaves for two hours, he built more Lego, we took Middlest to an afternoon class, he did an hour of math homework, we walked home, bought marshmallows and hot dogs on the way, and we ate dinner and dessert al fresco around a bonfire.

By 6:30, the fire was dying out, and so was he.

I needed a glass of wine to go with my s’mores because, honestly, the rush and the push tries my patience six ways from Sunday, but part of the exercise of the bonfire was to sit and to stop and to rest at the end of a busy weekend.   The boys ate and drifted into the house, the bonfire that was meant to be a reward for yard work was left to my husband and me, and we had the gift of an uninterrupted 30 minutes by the fire.  I heard the wind in what remains of the maple leaves and the pop of firewood.  I felt my body ache with raking and stiffen from resting.  And resting, I see that these boys of mine thrive on the constant activity that tries me.  Lack of sleep, hunger, boredom: these are the predictable things that set off bombs, but busyness does not faze them.

November nights close in early, and I love the dark and the cold and the early nudge to bed.   Sleep and flannel sheets seem all the more welcome after a day that’s been jam packed and spent outdoors.

We all climbed into our beds with the smell of smoke on our bodies and the sense of satisfaction that comes with getting things done.  The leaves are raked, the week is closed, and memories made around a fire to cap off the day.

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Giveaway: Royal Agricultural Winter Fair

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UPDATE: THIS COMPETITION IS NOW CLOSED

We have five sets of family passes to give away for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair!  (Each set has passes for four people.)

The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair is the world’s largest combined indoor agricultural and equestrian show.  This year, The 92nd Royal Agricultural Winter Fair runs November 7-16, 2014 in the Direct Energy Centre and Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto.

All you need to do is leave a comment saying you’d like to go and we will select the winners on Thursday, November 6th.  (That’s tomorrow!  Enter now!)

 

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The Gift of an Extra Hour

560146_10154829745705014_3080396294445167686_nAnd you, you busy mother, what will you, did you do with the gift of an extra hour this weekend when the clocks turned back and the night closed in?

What gift will you, did you give yourself in those sixty precious extra minutes?

Sleep.  Sleep sleep sleep sleep sleep.  And/or.

A full pot of hot coffee and time to drink it quietly.  And/or.

An early-morning slip out of the front door and up the hill to the damp dark park for long quiet walk.  And/or.

Bread, from scratch, to make the house rise with its smell.  And/or.

A bath alone and piping hot.  And/or.

A project from beginning to end.  And/or.

A meal, unhurried.  And/or.

Yes instead of no.  And/or.

Extra chapters at bedtime.  And/or.

Sleep.  Sleep sleep sleep sleep sleep.

 

 

Meditating with Pattern-Making

photo 1 (3)Meditating and me, we just don’t click.  I can remember lying in bed as a child, struggling to fall asleep, and trying to count sheep.  I never even made it to ten before I’d be off track, imagining a wolf hiding behind a fence, waiting for his lunch, thinking about what I myself had had for lunch, and would there be any mango left over for lunch tomorrow, and thinking about how Soandso had sat with Whojimmywhatsit again, and my mind would be off racing.

Fast forward to adulthood, and I have the same problem of extreme distractibility as soon as I am supposed to immerse myself in concentrating on nothing.  I’ve tried and failed to empty my mind so many times, and as much as I love a challenge, I do not like repeated failure.

This past summer, though, as I was hunting for how-to books for making art with my kids, I stumbled upon a series of books about pattern-making called Zentangle.

The Zentangle Method is a way to create images by drawing structured patterns. It was created by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, who found that she entered a meditative state as she drew her tangle patterns.  According to their web site, Zentangle began when Maria described “her feelings of timelessness, freedom and well-being and complete focus on what she was doing with no thought or worry about anything else.”

And it really is an all-absorbing, relaxing and fulfilling way to focus on something while thinking of nothing.

Carol told me recently about a tip someone had given her about how to occupy herself while sitting keeping her kids on task doing homework.  You know how sometimes, when you are sitting with your kids while they are doing homework and you get the urge to stick a hot poker in your eye just so that you can have something else to think about other than how much you’d like to escape?  Grab knitting needles instead.  It is more productive and less likely to end in bloodshed.  Knitting, once you are past the absolute beginner stage, is a brainless and soothing way to keep your hands busy when your mind has to be occupied.  Knitting also has the enormous value of giving you something in return for your effort, and at the end of the homework session, you will both have accomplished something other than screaming.  Drawing patterns has become that something for me.

Productivity is part of why I fail so spectacularly at meditation.  Believe me, I do get the irony of wanting meditation to be productive, but let’s face it, it’s not like I have lots of time to devote to getting it right.  I struggle and struggle and in the end I feel that I have wasted my time and energy and emerged with nothing, but not the nothing I was supposed to be aiming for.

Doodling patterns gets me into that totally focussed state of mind, gives me a feeling of well-being, and at the end of a doodling session, I have an image to show for it.  That is enormously satisfying.  I am working my way through doodling the letters of the alphabet.  This is what I made while the kids did math:

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If you’d like a quick tutorial on how to make one of the Zentangle designs, grab any old sheet of paper and something to draw with and follow along:

 

 

The Leslie Street Spit: A Man-Made, Nature-Filled Wonder

220px-OHEHOpenStreetMapThe Leslie Street Spit is a man-made headland that extends five kilometers south into Lake Ontario from the bottom of Leslie Street.  Since the 1960s, the site has been used for dumping all of the rubble and dirt from excavations from new building construction.  What came out of the ground with excavators got dumped down here until it had grown to its current size.  What the city did not anticipate was that this man-made land would be so quickly colonized by plant and bird life, and what began as a dumping ground has become a bird sanctuary and a haven for city-dwellers looking for a long and car-free walk by the lake.

The site is now a park, but because it is still an active dumping zone, the park is only open on weekends. Parking at the gates to the park is a bit haphazard, and while there is a lone hot dog stand at the end of the route, you will keep your little campers happy if you come well stocked with snacks and drinks.

I have walked and biked the 10 kilometers round trip from the street to the lighthouse at the tip of the spit with the kids many times, and there is always something new to discover.  One year, students from Guelph University were there tagging monarch butterflies; the spit has become a stop on the butterflies’ migration route.  There are 45 species of birds that breed on the headland, and more than 300 species have been spotted there.  Budding bird-watchers will find a lot to spot.  There are marshes and woods and bridges and bright sky and a lake wind.  There are cormorants perching on wooden pilings and butterflies to chase.  The entire route is paved, with makes biking, roller blading and walking with a stroller all equally easy.  You may see one city pick up truck, but the route is closed to cars.  It is amazing to walk here and see how much work nature has done to make this space its own in such a short time.  It teems with life.  It’s a place to go on a wide-open day, when you have no pressing business elsewhere, to meet with the wide open sky and the lake.  Wide open days are precious enough, but when you can say that you have walked among the cottonwood trees or seen the lake’s whitecaps at your leisure, I think the day has been truly well spent.

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Facts and map from Wikipedia.

 

 

Halloween Reads Giveaway

For the past few years, we have done a modified version of an advent calendar for Halloween.  (Read more about it here.)  In the two weeks leading up to the big day, we read one spooky tale a night from our box of Halloween books.  This year, we are happy to offer your littlest readers a trio of Halloween picture books.  Please leave us a comment, and we will draw for a winner on Friday, October 17th.  Canadian and American readers only, please.  Thanks to Sourcebooks for the bookish goodness!
 
Happy Halloween! By Lillian Jaine

It’s Halloween night, and Count von Count is dozing off in front of his fireplace. Suddenly, he hears someone knocking at his castle door, but when he opens the door, nobody’s there! Could it be a spooky Halloween spirit playing a trick on him, or is it something less sinister? Join Count, Elmo, and all of the Sesame friends as they celebrate Halloween!

 

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A Halloween Scare by Eric James

It’s Halloween night, and creatures and critters from near and far are starting to gather outside the front door. And now here comes a whole army of monsters, on broomsticks, buses, and bikes, all clamoring in the darkness. What is it they want? Are they coming for you?

This humorous, creative story is the perfect Halloween adventure for children and parents to share.

 

 

 

Pumpkin Time! by Erzsi Deák

The day the cows strolled down Main Street in fancy hats…Evy didn’t notice.

What was Evy doing?

Evy is so focused on watching her garden grow that she misses all the silliness going on around her—pigs DANCING, donkeys FLYING, and sheep HAVING A PICNIC.

But after Evy’s spent all year taking care of her garden, everyone’s invited to pumpkin time!

 

Fall Comfort Food

One thing for which I am so grateful on a daily basis is the inspiration from other bloggers and from cookbook authors to make quick, healthy, filling meals for the boys with hollow legs who populate this house.  Left to my own devices, I’d probably just eat toast for dinner most nights, but you cannot grow healthy kids on toast alone, tempting though it might be.  I know, though, that if I spend a minute flipping through my cookbooks, or my bookmarked blogs, I will rise above my lethargy and get inspired to try something new.

Such was the case one cold night recently, and I made a stew that I knew would be my perfect comfort food.  The catch: I was fairly sure it would be a flop with the kids.  WRONG.  Youngest ate three bowls of this Chick Pea and Sweet Potato Stew, and then he asked for it in his lunchbox for the next day.  It was a lesson for all of us: do not be afraid to stray from the tried and true.

Sweet Potato Chickpea Stew

Here is the recipe, reprinted with permission, from Michael Smith’s Family Meals:

Sweet Potato Chickpea Stew

Serves 4 to 6

 2 tablespoons (30mL) of vegetable oil

1 large onion, chopped

4 garlic cloves, sliced

2 tablespoons (30mL) of curry powder

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) cubes

A 19-ounce (540mL) can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

4 cups (1L) of water

1 teaspoon (5mL) of salt

A 14-ounce (400mL) can coconut milk

2 cups (500mL) of fresh or frozen green peas

1 pint (500mL) of cherry tomatoes, halved

½ teaspoon (2mL) of your favorite hot sauce

The zest and juice of 1 lime

A handful of fresh cilantro sprigs

Splash the vegetable oil into a large pot over medium-high heat. Toss in the onions and garlic and cook, stirring as the onions soften, 5 minutes or so. Sprinkle in the curry and stir for a few moments to brighten its flavor. Toss in the sweet potatoes, chickpeas, water and salt. Bring to a slow, steady simmer, then simmer long enough for the sweet potato to soften, 20 minutes or so.

Pour in the coconut milk, peas and tomatoes. Continue cooking just long enough to heat everything through. Season with the hot sauce and lime zest and juice. Serve and share with the cilantro sprinkled over every bowl.

 

Is it no reflection on the quality of this recipe that one boy got up from the table after eating a bowl full of this for dinner to make himself a sandwich.  See above re: hollow legs.

We also had great success recently with an apple galette, inspired by Kitchen Counter Chronicles.  Jen’s recipe is ever so kid-friendly, and the kids really loved getting involved in making dessert.

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p_238_274_238And if you do not have the time or energy to make your own baked goods, either for dinner or for the upcoming Thanksgiving festivities, give thanks for the brilliant concept that is ShopBake, an on-line baked goods store with treats from over 50 Toronto bakeries.  They sent us a sample pack of some of their goodies, and I have to tell you that everything I tasted was delicious.  Best of all, because there are so many vendors, you can really narrow down your parameters: gluten-free, nut-free no problem!

Shop Bake sent us samples of their goodies, and Penguin sent us a copy of Michael Smith’s Family Meals.  Thank you for spreading the goodness!

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Grateful for Canadian Women Writers

We are transitioning this week from our September theme of the return to school, to gratitude, our theme for the month of Thanksgiving.

After running around like a madwoman all September, I am ready to sit down and create some space for myself and to reflect on what has kept me sane for the past month.  What keeps me sane is my bulging bookshelf of books to be read.  More than sane.  It delights me.  What I am most grateful for in this month of Thanksgiving is the incredible talent of the Canadian women whose work has made my down time such a joy.

In spite of the insanity of the blur that was September, I still managed to read a lovely pile of books.  I recommend one and all and hope that you, too, will find something to love and to be grateful for.

9781770894327Girl Runner

Carrie Snyder

Toronto: Anansi, 2014.

I have reviewed Carrie’s work here before.  Her Juliet Stories are a favourite of mine, and I could not wait to read her latest.  Girl Runner is everything I had hoped it would be.  It is crisp and smart and lyrical.  It is a page-turner.  Last, but not least, there is a gorgeous illustrated map at the beginning of the book.  It reminded me of Ernest Shepard’s map of the Hundred Acre Wood.  It has beautiful little houses, neat rows of crops and trees, and a lighthouse in the middle of farmland; a mystery in the middle of a rural landscape.  It is preparation for the mystery at the heart of the story of the novel’s protagonist, 104-year-old Aganetha Smart.  Olympic runner.  Nursing home inmate.

The book begins on the day that Aganetha is sprung from her nursing home by two strangers claiming to know her.  The novel then progresses with flashbacks of Aggie’s life as they take her home to the farm where she grew up.  Aggie’s girlhood on the farm, her working life in the city, her training as a competitive runner and her winning Olympic gold for Canada in the 1928 Olympics, her friendships, work and ambition.

What I most loved about the book is the description of Aganetha’s ambition.  I don’t think there are enough stories about female ambition.  Snyder describes ambition not as something hard or calculating, but as if it is something organic, born and not made by the goal-setting cheers of the chorus of life coaches that seem so loud in the 21st century.

Aganetha reflects that

Somehow it never went out of me–the desire to compete, to line up against others, win or lose, part of a rhythm larger than myself.  One turning wheel in a crowd of effort.

That image of gears could stand equally well as a metaphor for how the book is constructed, with successive gears setting each other in motion, and when you arrive, breathless, at the end, the final gear clicks into place and the whole story makes a different and piercing kind of sense.

ellenEllen in Pieces

Caroline Adderson

Toronto: Harper Collins, 2014.

When Caroline Adderson set out to write this book, she did so with a particular goal in mind: to write a book that walked and talked like a novel but that could be taken apart into standalone stories.  Ellen in Pieces.  Ellen.  In Pieces.  She knocked it out of the park.

The cover art is especially apt because not only can the novel’s structure withstand being fractured, the book looks at the fragments of a woman’s life and at how romance, motherhood, friendship and a sense of self can all survive being shattered.  And it has to be said, there is shattering.  There is also humour, sex, and some damn fine writing about the frustrations and difficulties of being a single mother:

She met the American novelist in the restaurant of the Hyatt to review his schedule.  Interviews, bookstore signings, then the grand finale, the Reading.  He asked straight out, “Did you love my book?”

“I did,” Ellen said.  She’d only read the beginning and the end and some of the middle bits.  “It’s brilliant.”  It was middling, actually, but you don’t feed two children on honesty.

Ellen is not an entirely likeable character.  This also has to be said.  But I really enjoyed seeing how Adderson made her character succeed in spite of her faults.  She is feisty and often selfish, but she is loved, and her friends are loyal, and I found it a marvel to watch how they rally around her.

interInterference

Michelle Berry

Toronto: ECW Press, 2014.

Interference, another novel in stories, takes its title from the rules of hockey: a penalty is called if an opponent impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal, obscures too aggressively his line of sight.  Sight, obscured and predatory and sinister, is what this book is all about.  How do we see?  How are we seen?  Who is watching?  The book is a collection of short stories about the inhabitants of a small Canadian town: the members of the Senior Ladies Leisure Hockey League, local teens, a mysterious man with a disfiguring scar.  The stories are interspersed with written ephemera: letters to parents from the school principal,  a list of myths about cancer, emails and legal Cease and Desist letters.  Sometimes, though, these bits of information raise more questions than they answer.  I absolutely loved how the book kicks off with a letter from the principal:

Dear Parents and Guardians,

This morning we became aware of an incident that occurred at another school this week.  We are forwarding this information to you, because we know you need to be aware of what is going on and we need to have an open dialogue between staff and parents.  We have found that if we don’t have this kind of discussion some of our parents get very upset.  Last year’s incident with the ice cream and the hermit crabs was just such an example of this.

In effect, “Parents, we are watching you.  We don’t like how you gossip.  This is the one true version of events.  Everything is under control.”  The letter goes on to describe an incident of a possible attempted abduction, and the threat of a pedophile lurking around haunts the rest of the book.  Everything is decidedly not under control, and disquiet hovers.  But, damn, all I wanted to know on page 1 was what happened with the ice cream and the hermit crabs!

brokenAll the Broken Things

Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Toronto: Random House, 2014.

All the broken things includes my heart.  This novel tells the story of Bo, a refugee from Vietnam, his mother Rose, and his sister, who is severely disfigured from the effects of Agent Orange.  It tells the story of Teacher, who tries desperately to do the right thing for Bo and his family, having sponsored them through her church, but failing utterly to understand how hard it is for Bo to accept her goodwill because he feels proud and alien and 14, for Pete’s sake.  It is about Emily, Bo’s schoolmate and neighbour, who has an otherworldly wisdom and an ability to connect with his hidden sister.  It is about getting swept up in putting on a school play, the story of Orpheus, and it is, improbably and perfectly reasonably, about a Vietnamese boy finding a home in Canada by performing in the theater of the circus: bear wrestling.  He is given his own cub to raise, and like the great writhing mass of his emotions, he has to keep her hidden from sight.

The story broke my heart because Bo has too much responsibility and wrestles with too much loss for one so young.  He is swept up in so much turmoil, and while the pathos is never gratuitous, I found it so very moving to read about a boy still so adrift after making landfall in Canada.  When Teacher invites Rose to help make the costumes for the play, Bo chafes at seeing his mother at school:

He wasn’t embarrassed.  He was ashamed.  And he wasn’t ashamed of Rose.  It was something deeper.  It was the shame Teacher conveyed, by trying to fix things.  He wanted to shout that these things were just broken.  He wanted her to understand about the pride of broken things.

That Bo is simultaneously so wise and so lost is the story’s best and, yes, most heartbreaking, tension.

Please share the book love!  Tell us what you’re reading and what we should read, too.