Not Coronavirus: What? Syndrome

Author’s Note: I wrote this as mounting tensions over Covid-19 were rising.  I don’t want to appear insensitive or unaware of the current pandemic situation, but when life goes on – and regular life will go on – there will be other things to discuss and what follows is part of a dialogue from a conversation I’d like to have.  Grab a chair and lend me your ear.

Why is it that certain service providers and businesses act like people with disabilities don’t exist?

If my daughter with Down syndrome wants to go to camp, and she needs some support to be there, whose responsibility is it to arrange and pay for that support?  Without getting into the legalities, who do you think should have to do this?  What feels right to you?

Written into the Ontario Human Rights Code under The Ontario Human Rights Commission:

“…service providers have a legal duty to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities who are adversely affected by a requirement, rule or standard.  Accommodation is necessary to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities, access and benefits.  Employment, housing, services and facilities should be designed inclusively and must be adapted to accommodate the needs of a person with a disability in a way that promotes integration and full participation.”

I am no legal expert, but when I read that, I think, ya, businesses are supposed to be designed in a way that anticipates the range of human existence.  The needs of people with Down syndrome should not be an afterthought.

I am no legal expert, and that is why I’m talking to a lawyer – who is – and will hopefully be able to give me a definitive answer to my camp question, regarding support, but I know what feels right and what doesn’t.  And being told I would have to pay for a support person to accompany my daughter to camp definitely doesn’t feel right; it feels like a slap to the face.  Like the person making the statement doesn’t know my daughter at all (because they don’t).  Like the person is making assumptions and generalizations without asking any questions (because they are).  Like society doesn’t care about inclusion.  Like inclusion is a myth.  There’s money I can access to pay for this support person, but then there will of course be less money for other more essential services, like speech therapy for example; but this is about more than money.  My question isn’t just about who pays.  The costs are much higher than that.

For a child with disabilities to be able to participate in a camp setting or community program, I view putting all of the onus on parents to provide that support as a lousy thing to do.  If you send your typical kid to rock climbing camp, you aren’t expected to bring your own ropes and harnesses, which is what it takes to be able to participate in rock climbing camp.  If we say we are an inclusive society, or if we truly want to be (which we should) then camps should hire extra staff to help meet the needs of kids with varying abilities.  The best part of this approach is that every camper would benefit, and this my friends, is called ‘Universal Design’.

When I approach a new program for Elyse, I want to know what the business is doing on their end to accommodate my child, but I am also sure to ask what can I do?  I don’t mind meeting halfway; I view any setting between a child and a care provider as a partnership, which means both sides have responsibilities.  My responsibility is to help that setting get to know my child; their responsibility is to do the rest.  Elyse does need some degree of support; but it’s all in the way an organization goes about offering it (or not).

Here’s a great example of a partnership that worked.  Before the start of summer gymnastics camp, we signed Elyse up for a regular gymnastics class session so that she knew the staff, and they knew her.  We then enrolled her in that same gymnastics club’s summer camp during a week that was less busy, because we had that flexibility, and in return, the club matched Elyse with a coach whose style and personality jived.  The club was flexible in making sure Elyse’s needs were met without impacting the group dynamics or causing undue harm or hardship.  She did not need a one-on-one support person, but what she did need was a mature coach and a group effort and consensus to keep an extra eye on her.  The coaches did this because they are doing their very best to uphold the values of inclusion and the principles that when we support our most vulnerable and we are a community that looks after each other, then everyone benefits because everyone belongs.

Likewise, our community swim program has been phenomenal.  Year after year, I contact them in regard to registration and mention that Elyse has Down syndrome.  I then discuss Elyse’s specific needs, because – hello – not all people with Down syndrome are the same!  I explain her needs, am flexibly on timing and then Halton Hills recreational staff make sure Elyse either has one-on-one or that there is a volunteer extra staff available to help her in a group setting should she need it.  This has been at no extra cost to us.  This inclusive set up makes us feel welcome and valued in our community.

But not every community program is so wonderful and not every camp knows Elyse and wants to help us out.  The consensus across Ontario is not always a ‘we’, but often still an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.  Friends of ours have mentioned they were turned away from daycares, for example, because their child has Down syndrome.  Why is this happening?  It shouldn’t be.

I now have the correct label for this phenomenon.  I wrote about discrimination in another recent blog post, but that’s not exactly what this is.  The proper term is ‘ableism’ and ‘ableist attitudes’.

From the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC):

“Ableism may be defined as a belief system, analogous to racism, sexism or ageism, that sees persons with disabilities as being less worthy of respect and consideration, less able to contribute and participate, or of less inherent value than others.  Ableism may be conscious or unconscious, and may be embedded in institutions, systems or the broader culture of a society.  It can limit the opportunities of persons with disabilities and reduce their inclusion in the life of their communities.”

This, all of this, yes.  Unfortunately, though steps have been taken to try and help bridge the gap, there exists a chasm between the abled and the disabled; the gaping hole that remains is in our attitudes towards those with disabilities.  Sure, throw some money at us – the families who have children with disabilities – we will take it, but it is outdated attitudes and stereotypes that are weighing on us heavily and truly holding our children back.

Expectations, and the expectations we hold for individuals, matter.  There is a slew of research on the impacts of our expectations in regard to outcome and performance, but what you need to know is this:  when we believe that someone can do better, they do better.  When we set our expectations high, individuals tend to perform better.  When we set people with Down syndrome and their families up for success, by putting supports in place that do not cause undue hardship to families rather than just worrying about businessesthen society wins.

Do I want to see a business collapse under the weight of supporting my child?  No.  But that is so far from the case, regardless.  Do I want to see a service, such as a camp, act surprised when I come knocking at their door with my child with Down syndrome?  1 in 800 Canadians are born with Down syndrome – why should anyone be surprised?

Again, from the OHRC:

“Ableist attitudes are often based on the view that disability is an “anomaly to normalcy,” rather than an inherent and expected variation in the human condition.”

People with Down syndrome have always existed.  In every race, gender, socio-economic status and across time.  For those who haven’t already, it is time for businesses and service providers to wake up and plan for the diversity of the children who will arrive at their doorsteps.  Do not put undue hardship on families.

Maybe this is all too impersonal.  Too preachy and utopian.  I don’t think so.  I know we can do better.

And here’s why we should.

Emily and I are giving a talk in a school.  The kids absolutely love her and want to be around her.  Emily is a former Special Olympian rhythmic gymnast with a sparkle in her bright blue eyes and a wit to match.  After our talk is over, a kindergarten class fills the gym and the teacher pulls out a parachute.  While I’m busy chatting, Emily, without missing a beat, joins in with the Kindergartens, shaking and lifting the parachute much to their delight.

On our drive home, I ask her why she did that – joined in at the parachute.

“Because,” she said, “I like to do that, and it’s been a while.”

How many adults do the things they really want to do when it comes to play?  I aspire to be that person, but I don’t always succeed.

There are so many lessons to learn in the breadth of humanity.  We need to be bringing more people in, hearing what they have to say, rather than keeping people out and turning them away.  I have learned more from the experience of having my daughter Elyse than from any education a higher institution could provide.  Some things – love, for example – cannot be measured or quantified or taught.  Some things are mostly felt and there are certainly those individuals more equipped to teach us.

When it comes to supporting each other, building inclusive communities, and the attitudes that pervade, businesses and service providers shouldn’t be worrying about whether they’ve done enough to meet the status quo or minimum standards (though they should make sure they have done at least that) – but whether they can do more.

Misunderstandings, If You Will

Discrimination is shocking.  Like a slap to the face.  And I’ve only experienced it second hand.  Or maybe discrimination is too harsh a word.  Maybe ‘misunderstanding’ is the label I’m searching for in this context, but I don’t think so.

When it comes to my daughter Elyse, I have an overflowing jar of ‘meaning-wells’ on my shelf but somehow the more I receive, the less ‘well-meanings’ I seem to have.  With the sheer volume of superfluous good intentions, the point is lost, losing its effect, because good intentions and ‘meaning-wells’ mean nothing when you’re drowning in them and when what you actually need is someone to listen, take you seriously.  We are at risk of drowning in the well-meanings of others and losing Elyse at sea without careful vigilance.

How hard it is for parents who don’t have a child with Down syndrome to see, for anyone really outside of individuals with Down syndrome themselves and their family members to understand how people with Down syndrome are discriminated against on the basis of their diagnosis.  Let me share a story to illustrate what I mean.

Around the time Elyse turned three, was learning to walk, and we took the girls to Disney Land, Elyse learned the letters of the alphabet. Her speech was delayed, but she made sounds and enthusiastically yammered on, mostly nonsensically.  Yet, she could say her letters.

The year she turned three she attended an exceptional Montessori preschool that fostered life skills as well as academic pursuits.  The school focused specifically on letters and letter sounds.  Simultaneously, at home, from the time Elyse was in the womb, we have read to her.  In the NICU at the hospital, recovering from surgery as a newborn, she was read to.  The nurses too, would lean in for story time.  Sound has a way of curling around our insides like touch, and we aimed to heal our daughter’s wounds with our words.  Books, comprised of letters and their sounds, were Elyse’s salve.

At three, we allowed Elyse to use the sesame street app that teaches letters on an Ipad, which she was intensely interested in.

One day, when grandma and grandad were over, it was grandma who pointed out to me that she thought Elyse was labelling her letters.  I had an art easel out with letters printed on it, probably something I was doing to help Ariel, our eldest, who had yet to master the alphabet, for lack of interest.  “B, D, T” Elyse said clearly, pointing to each letter correctly, one at a time, though she could barely speak.  I was in shock!  Elyse, eighteen months younger, learned to label the letters of the alphabet before Ariel did.  Keep in mind, Ariel, her older sister, is bright and inquisitive and receives excellent grades in school.

Fast forward now to Junior Kindergarten.  Elyse is still three years old because her birthday is later in the year and she isn’t toilet-trained.  I know how she looks to the outside observer with her pull-ups and small stature.  Infantile comes to mind.  But there is so much going on, so much, that is not readily apparent because of her language delays.  Then add in the fact that we send her to French school.  Now she has to learn all of the letters again, in French.  Admittedly, this takes her a while, but by the end of JK, she’s mostly there and into SK, surely, she has solidified this knowledge she first latched onto so young.

Roll into grade one.  Learning her letters shows up on her Individual Education Plan (IEP) as an expectation.  I am adamant this be removed.  Should Elyse choose not to demonstrate this knowledge, it’s because she is bored of it, not because she doesn’t know it.  Her school is phenomenal.  They listen to my concerns and we work together to get the expectations for Elyse’s learning where they need to be.  Expectations are raised higher up, where they need to go.  Once changed, the expectations remain realistic.

Enter grade two, the grade she is currently in.  Letters are no longer on the school agenda, THANK GOD, but sounds are up there, as they should be.  As you might have predicted (or maybe not?), Elyse is obsessed with books.  She looks at books all day long in her spare time and we offer her an abundance in French and English.  She has an intense interest in examining each page, but she isn’t quite able to decipher those words yet.  She will likely learn to read holistically by decoding whole words by their shape, rather than how most kids are taught, which is using a phonetic approach, i.e. by sounding words out.  Of course, there is great value in Elyse learning her sounds and the plan is that she will come to reading by blending the two strategies (holistic and phonetic).  She can read certain repetitive short texts already, small sight words, it’s a matter of building on what she knows and where she is at.  The same as for any child.

If we were really to take genetics into account when it comes to Elyse learning her letters, then we should probably look to her parents.  I am a writer and I am a teacher who taught grade one students a second language and then taught those same students to read in that language.  Now I help adult writers with their words.  I read no less than one hundred books a year, and you can damn well bet that my kids are going to experience literacy to the fullest.  In addition to a litany of scientific papers, my husband has one book to his name, in the form of a PhD thesis.  Our kids have two devoted parents, actively involved in their children’s lives.  And don’t get me started on their incredible grandparents.

Would you doubt our children would learn their letters?

But there are unfair barriers to Elyse’s success.  Every new year is like a new beginning of convincing others of what Elyse can do.  We recently started a special reading program, and the therapist outlined goals.

On the third week of Elyse’s sessions, I arrive to find an alphabet chart out.

“What are you doing with that?” I ask cautiously.

“We’re working on her letters!”  Oh no, you’re not.

I quickly, calmly, explain Elyse is way past that.

The therapist then hands me a paper with four attainable learning goals for Elyse laid out.  These are the goals Elyse will be working on for the duration of the program.  The second goal reads, ‘To recognize ten letters.’

“No, absolutely not, not this one,” I point out immediately.

“You’re a woman who knows what she wants!” the therapist replies.

No, I’m a woman who knows what her daughter needs.

This therapist means well, I know they do, and Elyse loves them and I believe that they care and that they are good at their job.  I am so grateful for the work they do because our family benefits from the support.  But THANK goodness they were consulting me, and open to my suggestions/demands.  Elyse will not be subjected to ‘learning’ her letters again.

The feeling I’m left with from the experience (and this is not the first nor will it be the last time) is that learning outcomes, in many contexts, are too often being made based on assumptions, prejudices, discrimination – misunderstandings, if you will.  She has Down syndrome; she is Down syndrome, therefore she will only be able to do X, Y, and Z.  No, no, NO!!!  These folks mean well, but NO!  I share this story not to shame; the problem is a societal issue.

It’s time to raise the bar.  To assume competence, capability and intelligence.  Elyse’s preschool teacher, a woman I know who really saw her, used to say to me all the time, “She’s a smart cookie!”  And you know, she’s my kid, but I don’t care, I’ll say it anyway, she IS a smart cookie, and she deserves to be treated as such.  She deserves the same respect other students do, the same chances at inquiry, the same push to succeed and grow, all of the best efforts to get her to learn.  She does not deserve to relearn the alphabet.  Every. Single. Year.

In Elyse’s place, wouldn’t you be bored?  And how forgiving of misunderstandings would you be if it was your child?



Ode to Oreo: Loss, Grief and Down Syndrome

Preface: I wrote this piece for a new blogger friend across the country, Katie Jameson, who will be sharing it as a guest post on her site.  Katie is a photographer who writes beautifully about grief in the context of having lost a child, and I highly recommend you check out her site and work here.

I woke up one day, and for some reason decided that was the day I’d get a dog.  I didn’t grow up with any canine companions, after all, I was allergic, but I’d always wanted a dog.  I was twenty-ish years old with a nineteen-year-old boyfriend and maybe a bit compulsive.  We were second year university students with no business getting a dog together, a commitment that lasts over a dozen years.  We lasted two more months – the boyfriend and I, that is – while my relationship with Oreo lasted a lifetime.

Oreo, a fourteen-pound black and white Shih tzu, was my first baby and taste at real responsibility, though I owe my parents – Oreo’s grandparents – for plenty of babysitting.  Oreo and I saw each other through life’s ups and downs.  If she ran away, I would go find her; if I wanted to run away, she was a good reason to keep me home.  She was more than a furry friend.  Dogs have this way of looking into your soul and seeing who you really are.  Oreo saw me.

She was there when I found out my baby was going to be born with Down syndrome.  We had been through one pregnancy before, as I had one beautiful baby girl already.  I was twenty-eight years old and Down syndrome was an unexpected deviation from my first experience with pregnancy.  My baby’s prenatal diagnosis brought a heavy grief down on my shoulders, the weight of which was all I did not know.  Usually, if I cried, Oreo would ditch the spot next to me if we were sitting on the couch together in favour of a quiet corner of a bed.  Alternatively, she would curl in beside her best friend, Sumo, on a dog bed tucked to the side of our living room.  Sumo was a large black lab that came with my husband, they were a package deal.  Luckily, I had grown out of my allergies.  Did I mention my husband and I met walking our dogs?  While Oreo mostly avoided me when I was sad, there were a few times she stayed by my side, and the time period during which I found out my baby had Down syndrome was one of those times.  I remember Oreo standing her ground and looking deep into my eyes, slightly cocking her head.  Why are you crying?  She let me pet her, self-soothe.  Oreo saw who I was before our daughter Elyse came into my life, and she saw the person I grew into afterwards.  Oreo oversaw my education of what it means to be human and to embrace the human spirit in all its uniqueness.  She watched me grow as a person and become the mother of three lively girls, an advocate and a writer.  On her walks, Oreo held her head high, proud of our little family.

Universally loved and adored by children, Oreo was understanding of the abuses she received from our girls as babies and toddlers.  She never bit them when they grabbed and pulled on her tail or stepped on her or fell on top of her though she sometimes warned them with a sharp turn of her head, like a glaring mother, and would nip at them when they were old enough to know better.  Oreo loved to steal the kids’ food – that, I will never deny.  As my girls grew, they were eager to make Oreo perform tricks for treats.  I shared a similar enthusiasm to work with dogs as a child, and my affinity for animals has never waned.  Elyse, especially, who can show indifference toward many activities, giving way to her two boisterous sisters who are known to take over, never let a dog training session go by without being the trainer.  Even though Elyse was afraid that Oreo would put her paws up onto her chest (and Oreo would, to grab the treat, given the chance) six-year old Elyse never backed down from being included in Oreo’s care. Elyse clutched Oreo’s treat to her chest like she was feeding a lion then threw it wildly to the ground for Oreo to give chase.  This routine never failed to bring a smile to Elyse’s face and mine.  Oreo brought many children great happiness.  She brought me great happiness.

For years, Oreo was a regular staple on our walks to school.  She was somewhat of a celebrity with the neighbourhood kids.  My girls sometimes fought over who would get to hold her leash.  That was a responsibility Elyse seldom relinquished.  She loved walking Oreo and getting to hold that leash was a small taste of power and freedom so seldomly afforded to her.  The only catch about Elyse walking Oreo was that I’d have to keep an extra eye on them both.  While trained on her leash, Oreo would occasionally pull, but more so, when Elyse grew tired of the task, she would simply drop the leash with a casual all done.

For a while, my husband and I got into the bad habit of using our feet as barriers to shoo Oreo away from the kids’ food as our hands were often multi-tasking.  We stopped doing that when Elyse also adopted the habit but actually tried to kick Oreo.  Despite this aggression, and Oreo being a bit hyper and overbearing, and Elyse being a tiny bit frightened of her, Oreo and Elyse were buddies.  You could say they were tight.


How do you explain the death of a beloved pet to a child?  Worst still, how do you explain that you are going to be putting an animal to sleep?  Forever.  Time and tenses have never been Elyse’s strength, who I find at seven years old today is very much in the moment.  Elyse shines her light in other ways.


I woke up one day, and knew it was time to put Oreo to sleep.

At fourteen years old, Oreo’s health had been rapidly declining.  We left on a six-week family vacation around the world, where she stayed with my parents (thank you, yet again), and when we got back, though Oreo had been well cared for and received much love, there wasn’t much left of her, the dog she had once been.  While she bounced back upon being home in the week or two following our return, she couldn’t find her rhythm or ward off the effects of old age, including incontinency.  She was frequently confused and shivering.  The worst was the sound she made at bedtime as she paced, looking lost, from room to room.  She whimpered and moaned and there was no consoling her.  Oreo’s cries were heart-wrenching.  Of course, we took her to the vet, but there isn’t much they can do for an aging animal, except bring them pain relief through drugs.  We did that, but still, Oreo was in pain.

I woke up and took Oreo for a decent walk on the last full day of her life.  And after that walk, I knew.  When I stopped moving, Oreo paced around me in circles.  All she had done day after day was pace herself until complete and utter exhaustion.  She would collapse into an uneasy sleep for a few hours then begin her pacing again.  She was in pain and I knew it was time to let her go.  She’d had a full life.

I tried my best to prepare the children for what we would do the next day.  I tried to tell Elyse that her buddy would be gone, while also trying to console myself, but Elyse just sat on her bed with her book gripped tightly in both hands, eyes fixed to the page.

I didn’t want to put any pressure on the girls to feel or act a certain way toward death.  I wanted them to come to terms with their own emotions of the experience.  My husband and I decided the girls would come to the veterinary office and have the chance to say goodbye, but then I would stay in the room alone with Oreo while she received the injection to put her to sleep.

The morning of our final goodbye, tears glistened down my cheeks.  My toddler pointed out that mommy was sad, while my eight-year-old noted “that’s because Oreo is going to die today,” but Elyse for her part showed no awareness of what was to come.  She stayed upstairs in her room, reading her books.  That is until we arrived inside the veterinary office.

With the fragile and fraying Oreo in my arms, our family was ushered to a comfortable back room.  While the girls were somewhat hyper in the car ride over, they sensed the magnitude and solemnity of the moment at hand now.

My husband gently reiterated to the girls, now in context, “it’s time to say goodbye to Oreo girls.”  They each took a turn caressing Oreo and stroking her softly, but it was Elyse’s reaction that will forever stand out in my mind because I thought she didn’t understand.

“We’re saying goodbye to Oreo,” Elyse repeated in a whisper.  Then she pat Oreo ever so gently and leaned in for one last hug and kiss.  “Goodbye, Oreo.”  She had compassion and love in her voice.  Elyse had been listening the whole time.  She understood and she directed the full force of her love unto her dog.

In the immediate aftermath of the experience, my youngest had a hard time processing our family’s loss, choosing to view Oreo’s absence as temporary, perhaps – “Oreo is at the vet’s”, while my oldest contemplated the reality, “We put Oreo to sleep and that means she’s dead.”  Elyse seemed to grieve the loss of our pet the most readily.

Two weeks after we put Oreo to sleep, Elyse said, “Oreo is sad.  We had to put Oreo to sleep and say byebye.”  That Oreo was sad clearly made Elyse sad and she remembered that pain.  Grief is never a straight line, is it?  Even when it comes to our pets.  I gave her a hug, and we reminisced about the good ol’ days with Oreo.

One day, I will wake up again, and it will be time for our family to bring home a new dog.  This dog will exasperate us, undoubtedly, as well as bring us great joy and happiness, as Oreo so often did.  I won’t be surprised, if when we do decide to get a dog, Elyse is the one to bring Oreo up.  I know with certainty that Oreo is a dog none of us will soon forget.

R.I.P. Oreo


Summer 2005 – Sunday, December 29th, 2019

Lovely Lisbon, Perfectly Portugal: Saying Goodbye

You’ll have to believe me when I tell you it’s hard to fathom six and a half weeks has gone by in the blink of an eye. It has. Don’t tell our parents, but I was loathe to return and see our trip come to an end so much so that I pleaded with Dan to extend. Morocco, we would head to Morocco, a place I originally slated into our itinerary, but for lack of time, we had to leave out. Africa! I made my case, then let Dan mull over the pros and cons of asking work for yet another week away, and in the end let’s just say it didn’t work out. I’ll have to live to see Africa another day. I can dream, but I can’t complain.  We had an incredible trip.

I’ve enjoyed travelling so much so in fact that I would have happily continued to do so for a year, maybe more. We met a few awesome families along the way, one of whom were fellow Canadians travelling for a year with their two girls; another group from Oregon travelling for two years with teenage daughters and a son Elyse’s age. I’m reading a book, One Year Off by David Elliott Cohen about a U.S. family with three young kids, ages 2, 7 and 8 who sell their home and make for the globe. When you get a good taste for travel, meet other families who are travelling longer, and read about world travelling families, it isn’t too hard to envision yourself in their shoes. Maybe one day. In the meantime, back to work and real life. Christmas is coming!

Lisbon was a dream. European cities hold old world charm and there was an abundance to discover. The history of the place is staggering and humbling. Their statues honour those who discovered “new worlds”, i.e. America. Lisboa in a snapshot is all squares, some raised on stilts (!) and painted tiles called azulejos; dank alleyways and lit smokes. Exuberant grandmothers tapping our girls on the cheeks, dark hair, dark eyes and tanned skins, yellow trams used as buses or elevators, seven mountains with viewpoints, miradouros, high above; fado music acapella floating in through our window, oceanfront graffiti, and custard nata tarts. Salted cod fish, bacalhau, hearty lunches, late dinners, cobblestone streets, narrow passageways and secret staircases. NASCAR taxi drivers, euros that slip away like a fish from your grasp, roundabouts round, a zoo, the oceanario, and the beautiful language of Portuguese, obrigada, thank you (obrigado for a man). Cruise ships docked and tourists, throngs of us, teaming the streets; wolfish vendors and restauranteurs with hungry eyes, licking their lips. The clown who gifted our children with balloons we did not want, never asked for; Dan and I rolling our eyes, playing along, for the children, think of the children. “One euro”, the clown’s hand outstretched. I reach into my bag, pull out the piece.



“One euro, each.”


The clown isn’t smiling. Her eyes grow cold. I don’t budge an inch.
She leaves, with a flourish of her hand, dismissing the children.


Chocolate cake and croissants with chocolate, decadent desserts, creaky wooden steps and floorboards, sleepy children, wine glasses clinking, a courteous knock on our apartment door, “Excuse me – I understand, I once had small children, but they are running on my head.” Walking feet and tippy toes, an antiquated apartment. Acoustics. Sound that carries.

A statue, arms wide open, churches set against blue skies, layers of edifices, centuries old, millenniums. Concrete steps to climb on, balance, jump off. City jungle gym. The rattle of our rickety fold-up stroller. The piercing smell of human waste, piles of clothes, empty bodies, missing. The telltale signs of any big city. A beggar woman cross-legged in front of a two-thousand-year-old church, clanging a coin in a tin cup.

Chickens! Roosters! Brightly coloured, mosaics, checkers, paintings. Old meets new. Sleek, exhibition park, pier-side, a gondola ride. Jellyfish-spotting from above. Blub, blub.

The ease of normalcy returning; the familiarity of Europe in food and folk. A French tour guide, the awesome surfing waves of the Atlantic crashing against the rugged coastline. A farmer’s market outside of town. Six euros for an armful of fruit. A large mango – surprise! – papaya. And octopus, you must eat the seafood, that tastes like, well, chicken.

Castles and palaces, kings and queens past. Whole rooms dedicated to mermaids. Thrones and royal gardens. Grand walkways and palisades. Ariel’s search for the crown jewels, but none to be found in Sintra’s summer palace (try the permanent residence). Pena’s towering height and bright pastels, turrets and towers, staggering views, but mind the drop. Cheapo vino, dark ale, bitter coffee quick quick, make it an espresso.

An unassuming day, an unassuming time, a riotous uproar down the alley to my left. Football fans leave the bar, as dusk settles, on the move, chanting for victory. A pregame display of machoism, patriotism and club fidelity. Do not get between a man and his ball.

Where are all the women?

Sports fans? Joggers? I encounter mostly men. Families in the squares? Mostly it is men milling about. Do I imagine, when I handle our affairs, the men eyeing me curiously? Small men with tight-fitting jeans. Have I stumbled into a man’s world? Back in time?

It’s a new world. Old world charm. Could I fit in here? I already know I would.

Many a stone left unturned, more to see and learn,
Until we meet again.
When one trip ends…another one begins.

Chiang Mai, Thailand: The Most Enchanting Experience of My Life

You know how there are those moments that can change everything in an instant? Often, this is in a bad context, but I believe just as strongly in the irrevocable flashes of good in our lives. The moments when the universe steps in and says look what is possible.

For me, these moments include the night Dan proposed under a starry sky of snowflakes, our wedding day, the birth of each of our children, and a handful of incredible experiences I’ve encountered through life and travel, many of them on this trip around the world. So far, Thailand has given me no less than two such amazing experiences. The first was visiting Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary and place to encounter elephants in their natural environment. The second experience, that dazzled and amazed, can be summed up in three words: the lantern festival.

There are two festivals happening simultaneously during our time in Thailand. The name of the festival varies by region, but it is the same festival, essentially. Loy Krathong is characterized by releasing small boats into the water, called krathong, that are made from banana trees, decorative flowers and a lit candle. Loy Krathong was traditionally celebrated on November 11, but with tourist interest and attention, the festivities have ballooned to last several days (this year from November 8 to 12). The exact date also depends on the lunar calendar and the arrival of the full moon. In Buddism, releasing krathong is supposed to appease the Queen of the River, Kongka, and serve as an apology for taking her water and doing with it what we will. While Loy Krathong is celebrated across Thailand, specific to the region of Chiang Mai with its old city, is Yi Peng. As a member from the staff of our hotel explained to me,

“The North of Thailand we call Yi Peng. The people are called Yi Peng.”

While Yi Peng is the name of the festival of lights in the North, it also happens to be the birthplace of the tradition of releasing lanterns, called khomloy, into the air in Thailand, which now happens in other cities in Thailand as well. Khomloy are large lanterns, lit from the bottom like hot air balloons. You grasp the khomloy tight, and then when it reaches peak temperature and tugs away from your grasp, begging to be let go, you release it up into the air, along with all of your troubles and a wish for good things to come. This year, the mass release of the lanterns was slated to happen on November 11th and 12th mostly; and though the city of Chiang Mai tried to outlaw releasing khomloy within the old city limits for the first time, the Yi Peng were not dissuaded, I can assure you.

Releasing the lanterns carries great significance and is a symbolic act. As our hotel staff member explained,

“Your life now has a trouble, your wish make it better. Make a wish about the good things to come in your life, (release the lantern) make the bad things go away.”

Our accommodation was twenty-five minutes outside the city by car, and our hotel graciously organized a boat tour for its guests to be able to experience the simultaneous festivities, lights by sky and water, in the middle of it all. Of course, there are organized mass lantern releases, and you can pay $100 a ticket, but arguably the best place to see the lanterns and experience the sights and sounds is in the heart of the old city of Chiang Mai, by Narawat bridge. The cost to be in the old city is free, if you can fight your way in; the view priceless.

Our little boat crew of about twenty-five people took off downstream. We could see beautiful krathong floating in the water right from the start, from the shores of our hotel, but as we passed by several celebrations taking place further along the banks of the river, the array of accumulated lights along the water was dazzling. By boat, to reach the heart of the action, we had about an hour of drifting to do, but around each bend the anticipation and thrills only grew. We saw a few lanterns, khomloy, dancing high in the air in the distance, a harbinger of delights to come.

As we approached the city, we observed many people releasing khomloy into the air and krathong into the water, but it was the scene as we rounded the final bend that was the most spectacular. Thousands of illuminated lanterns, suspended in the air, moving in unison, rising. My eyes glowed from the sheer pleasure of the scene. And as we drew nearer, the lanterns only grew bigger, fireworks shooting off all around us, packed shores and bridges, bodies and lights everywhere. I could plainly see the scene from shore would have been too much for our little family. We would have been engulfed by the masses entirely. Even from the water, the scene was overwhelming. I was brimming with emotion, every one of my senses firing, lit up. The thought came to me, and without question I knew it to be true: this is the most enchanting experience of my life.

Our boat tour began at 8:00 p.m. – past our children’s regular bedtime. Despite her tiredness, Ariel remained engaged for quite a while; but when she deteriorates, she deteriorates fast. Penelope, bright-eyed, was eager for adventure and told me, “This is so cool!” as we approached the multitude of lights by boat. Elyse was able to take in the sights and sounds, but in a modified way. We needed to tune down the sensory experience for her so as she would not become too overwhelmed and shut down completely. The combination of a late night, being out in the dark, loud and abrupt sounds, bright lights, a moving open-air boat, and a foreign situation all spell disaster for our sensitive Elyse. So we did what we had to do – not what I would have liked to do – but what we had to do, and we brought earphones and an iPad to help keep Elyse calm. During what I would call the height of the chaos and beauty, while our boat was momentarily stationary, Elyse took off her earphones and came over beside me while I lowered a krathong on behalf of our family into the water, and that was a beautiful moment. She took part in her own way.

There were several families and children on the boat alongside us, which was nice. The look of wonder and excitement on their faces, on all of our faces. One French-speaking boy, who took a particular liking to Elyse, happened to be on board with his family. Earlier in the day by the pool, I had come down for a swim with Ariel and Penelope, while Elyse was upstairs still getting ready. The little boy came right over to me and asked,

“Où est celle qui a sept ans?” Where is your daughter who is seven years old? He was delighted when she joined us shortly thereafter.

After our evening boat ride ended, sometime after 10:00 p.m., each of us filled to the brim by the experience, but also exhausted from the day’s events, we traipsed through the lobby on the way back to our room, and I caught up with the little boy again. He handed me a candy. “Oh, thank you! Is this for me?” I asked.

He shook his head. “Oh, it’s for Penelope?” who was standing beside me.

He shook his head again.

“Non, c’est pour celle qui a sept ans.”

Elyse had already made her way upstairs, but I made sure to deliver the candy from her crush.

There are definitive moments and large sweeping gestures, grandiose scenes of lantern-lit skies that take your breath away and then there are the everyday kindnesses that make life so sweet and worthwhile, that make the heart glow from the inside out as bright as floating lanterns backlit against the night’s sky. I am grateful to have experienced both in one day. Life will never be the same.

Japan II: The Ice Cream Incident

I am currently 2,743 feet up in the air. The temperature is minus forty-five degrees Celsius, but I’m donning a sleeveless dress with black tights. We are on our way to Thailand and I am prepared for the thirty-five-degree heat. But I can’t leave Japan without a warm farewell, a sincere sayonara, and a further account of our experiences there.

We stayed in Japan for a total of eleven days, and spent time in Tokyo, Yamanashi (Mt. Fuji region), Hiroshima – including a day trip to Miyajima Island – Kyoto and Osaka. Our time in Kyoto and Osaka was admittedly short, about twenty-four hours each. How long does one need to stay in a place to get a sense of it? Not that long, it turns out.

While Tokyo was hit by a typhoon a few weeks before our arrival, the climate cooperated perfectly during our stay. The ongoing joke between Dan and I was him asking if we needed the winter coats I packed, as the thirteen degree overnight and brisk morning temperatures quickly rose to nineteen or twenty degrees during the day. You can’t say I wasn’t prepared.

Interestingly enough, we hardly needed any of our own clothes during our time in Japan, as we spent four days at a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) where our attire was provided. From a laundry perspective, this was great news. The hotels we stayed at in the big cities also provided nightwear, aka pyjamas, but we opted for our more casual t-shirts and nightgowns versus the buttoned-up affair.

My impressions of Japan are a series of moments and small details: colourful paper cranes at the Children’s Peace Monument; matcha tea and gelatinous purple treats in the tea house of the rock garden at the ryokan, the sound of a bullet train whining past, like steel breaking the sound barrier; soaking naked in the onsen beside strangers on the roof and staring at Mount Fuji in awe.

Dan described Japan best with a simile. He said Japan is like an iPhone in that if you follow the system, not only do you get the most out of the experience, but it works, and it works well. If you try to deviate outside the norm, there is no flexibility, and you will spend a lot of time banging your head against the wall in frustration. We had our share of glitches in Japan. Nothing frightening or harmful, just the impracticalities of trying to operate under a different system. Of being an outsider.

Perhaps the most acute difficulty with trying to simultaneously figure out a new culture while living our lives was to also care for our children. I often advocate on children’s behalf promoting their ability to adapt to change more readily than adults – and this is true, to an extent. Children are also creatures of routine, and when those routines are significantly altered, chaos can ensue. Okay, in our case, no chaos ensued. Well maybe a little chaos.

The food was the most obvious deviation from our regular routines. Despite Japan’s international reputation as being one of the healthiest nations in the world, partly due to its intake of fresh fish, we struggled somewhat with our diets. In a pinch, Seven-Eleven proved to be a great take-out option, but the meals we procured weren’t necessarily complete or health-conscious. For example, for one of our last breakfasts, I grabbed a cooked hotdog in a bun, a few bananas, donuts (for Ariel, the picky eater), an orange juice, yogurt cups, hard boiled eggs, and an egg & ham sandwich with tomato (a very popular meal option found around the country). While the meal wasn’t un-healthy per se, it wasn’t exactly healthy either. At home, we try to limit our kids’ juice consumption, but in Japan, vending machines abound, we embraced it and tried to fill our kids up on juice more than once. To my surprise, we often found ourselves in restaurants serving udon noodles or ramen, that often also served fried chicken and rice. Those were the staple foods our family came to depend on (outside of our ryokan stay where we were fed like kings and queens). I previously wrote off western foods in Japan, but that’s just not true. There are more options in the bigger cities, you just have to know how to find them. Down the road from one of our Airbnb’s, we stumbled across a burger joint. Hamburgers and onion rings have never tasted so good, especially to Ariel who had been subsisting on dinner bowls of plain white rice.

On the eve of our departure, Dan and I finally said enough is enough and pointedly asked the hotel receptionist for a good place to get sushi.

“We can’t leave Japan without eating sushi!” Dan and I both reasoned, having eaten so little.

When I explained our desire for good sushi, the receptionist was resolute.

“Good sushi and cheap,” she promised me, pointing to a place close by on the map.

Well, we navigated the directions she gave us and found ourselves in a mall food court. Not exactly what we had in mind, but you can’t win them all. Much to my surprise, the food court sushi was sublime. We ordered seconds.

When we found ourselves in a pinch for food, and the kids were getting cranky, ice cream became the answer. Not only did we buy it for our kids en masse, but restaurant owners, those who took us under their wing, those who didn’t even sell ice cream, would give our kids their personal ice cream stash in an attempt to please them.

One afternoon, nearing the end of our Japan stay, we pushed our kids to their limits. They had reached a point of exhaustion for which there was no return. What happened next, I will fondly refer to as the ice cream incident. I am only able to detail the experience now, because we lived through it.

Dan and I rely on Ariel heavily to be the Big Sister, the mature one, the kid who gives us the least amount of grief. Whether this is fair to ask of an eight-year-old or not is debatable, but none-the-less, we have high expectations for her that include helping out, so when she shuts down, all hell breaks loose. On the day of the ice cream incident, Ariel lost her favourite pink sweatshirt. As it turns out, the sweatshirt got left behind on one of our shinkansen (bullet train) rides that day and with the sky overcast, a light drizzle falling, the air felt cooler. She was miserable and cold. Dan wisely refrained from making the winter coat joke. We had more than one long-sleeved shirt for Ariel, of course we did, but we had abandoned our luggage the day before and wouldn’t be procuring it back at the train station until later that day, so she was stuck with only a t-shirt – the first sore spot. Then, we happened to be visiting a “park”. When I say park in Japan, I mean a place where there is some interesting shrine or pagoda or monument. My kids assume playground. I have since learned – the hard way – to watch what I say. BE specific.

Ariel and the others anticipated “park”, aka “playground”. Instead there was a massive crowd and a whole lot of steps to walk up through beautiful, “boring”, wooden orange archways called Torii gates. Ariel was incensed. Elyse protested the crowds and was unsettled riding on Dan’s back in a carrier and Penelope refused her stroller, deciding instead to weave dangerously in and out of crowds of people, risking getting lost or injured. Her behaviour put me on edge, my mother instincts on high alert. Ariel protested her displeasure with her currently situation loudly, repeating the same complaints over and over, with a voice I’ve come to associate with her alter-ego, Exhausted Ariel. I should note, for posterity, that I also have an alter-ego we refer to as my “secretary”. I have the world’s worst secretary who absentmindedly speaks on my behalf, but doesn’t actually listen or pass on any messages or recall any important details of the exchange for real Adelle.

Exhausted, and now irate Ariel was in full swing. The difficulty in travelling as a family – if I were to put myself in the child’s position – is the inability to get away from each other for a break. Dan and I constantly have eyes on our kids, which is exhausting and draining for both sides. Nobody wants to be monitored constantly.

At one point in the steep walk, Ariel staged a showdown. This was it. She wasn’t going to walk any further. I coaxed her up to the top of the next set of steep stairs, at which point she accused me of grave lies, stating I had promised that would be the end of the hike. I had not – could not – make any such promise, having no idea where we were or where we were going beyond following the crowd. As a final straw, I had to implement one of the only respite techniques at my disposal to try and rally the troops – candy. I hate to say it, but with our kids getting whiny, candy has been a great way to either silence them at pivotal moments (think: Penelope bellowing Frozen’s Let It Go! at the top of her lungs in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum) or to try and tide over their hunger or displeasure in a given situation beyond our control. I hate that we have done this. We are not that parent, but then again, I guess we are. You do what you have to do. So, when a little further down the trail, hoping to regain regular Ariel and send Exhausted Ariel packing and I saw the ice cream stand, I offered my children ice cream.

I’d like to pause here to say that Dan and I have done our best to raise respectful, peaceful, grateful children. What follows is a shame and disgrace, but if I’m going to share our adventures, then I’m going to share them all.

There were two flavours of ice cream available for purchase: vanilla and green tea. In Japan, there are replicas of all the food out on display – very helpful – so right away, Elyse latched onto the idea of the green cone, pointing to it profusely, as did Penelope. Ariel, having a better grasp of the situation and her preferences, chose vanilla. So far, everyone is feeling good. Each girl knows she is getting what she asked for. Spirits are brightening at the prospect of ice cream. My plan is working.

Dan and I chose a hot pork bun and a milk tea latte with tapioca “pearls” to share, for the record, and that was the extent of the choices.

There was a small seating area carved out into the jungle for patrons of the small shop to sit with their ice cream. We took our places, and as the cones were prepared, a group of Spanish-speaking women joined us. They were grandmotherly and sought to make a connection with me, mother to mother, which I appreciated, but I was straining under the weight of my children’s needs.

In stark contrast to our children’s exhaustion and foul moods, was the chipper, helpful and industrious little girl working behind the counter taking our payment, counting out our change and serving our ice cream. She must have been the same age as Ariel, about eight.

I’ve tried to encourage my family to adopt a group mentality while traveling together. We do what is best for the group. As such, no one individual has true ownership over anything, if what is best for the group is to share.

The cones arrived, and predictably, ice cream can’t fix exhaustion, it can, however, apparently make things worse.

Elyse didn’t want the green ice cream cone she asked for. She fussed and complained loudly, letting out angry screams. This is a behaviour she engages in when she’s shutting down, frustrated and needing to be heard. Dan, in turn, lambasts me for letting her get what she wants because I should have known she wouldn’t really want the green one. His tiredness showing, having carried forty pounds of extra weight on his back for the last hour up hill, I wisely ignore his slight with a reproachful glance and turn my attention to Ariel’s cone. She will have to share. But Exhausted Ariel doesn’t share, she is understandably too intent on meeting her own needs. The Spanish-speaking women are impartial to Elyse’s screams; one woman says to me, “we’ve all been there before,” as I give her a weak smile in return. As the eternal optimist, even I can’t see this scenario getting better. In fact, it’s going to get a lot worse because now Ariel is complaining, LOUDLY, about having to share HER ice cream cone. She is beside herself. Her voice turns shrill and convalesces into an indiscernible whine. I’m cringing inside and out at the absurdity of my children arguing over ice cream. My cheeks burn at their privilege, at my ineptitude as their parent and embarrassment at the very publicized tantrum by two of my children, screaming at each other back and forth. The icing on the cake was not only could Ariel not bring herself to share any of her cone with her sister, but when Penelope’s cone became available, and Elyse was finally calming down to enjoy some of the last bites of the freed up cone, Ariel snatched it from her hand and Elyse wailed at the injustice. The Spanish-speaking women all sighed and turned away. As it turns out, we hadn’t all been here. I hated for my children – and admittedly myself – to be so exposed to the judgement of others for this subversive behaviour. To watch my children melting down in such a public forum. To add to my shame, as we were preparing to leave, the little girl who had served us the cones came out to offer our girls a cup of broken cones – as a sort of peace treaty. My girls were hardly in a state to show gratitude, but the Spanish-speaking women ate it up, with looks at me that conveyed, that’s how you parent.

I know sugar only makes things worse, but this proves it.

Dan and I packed up our kids, heads down, and continued on our way back down the mountain hoping not to run into anyone who had just witnessed our family catastrophe.

Not long after the ice cream incident, our kids made amends and were reunited in their shared pursuit of petting a shrine cat. Kids are good at forgetting and being in the moment. Dan squeezed my hand and shortly thereafter, we made our way out of the “park” and onwards to our accommodations, with no long-term ill-effects or family fallouts not reconciled. While there are challenging behaviours, I am definitely remembering to hug my kids close and enjoy our time together. Families that play together, stay together, but you have to expect a little rough housing every once in a while.

Ultimately, this story has a happy ending. Ariel’s pink sweatshirt was eventually returned to her, having been recovered from the train station’s lost and found and Exhausted Ariel was laid to rest. Elyse ate many other ice cream cones that she thoroughly enjoyed, none of which were green. Penelope stopped associating bad behaviour with candy, because I learned to disassociate the two, and Dan and I reconciled the tensions the best way adults know how, through more love, less talk. Japanese style.

And one more thing before I go. Did you know that in houses in Japan they don’t just have a shower, but an entire shower room? That it’s customary to remove shoes at the entrance of a home and wear slippers? That there are separate bathroom slippers? That hotels provide sleepwear? That several public bathrooms don’t have soap dispensers? That there are no trash cans anywhere, but it’s not dirty either? That in Hiroshima, you can’t book a taxi before 7:30 a.m.? That our family of five required two taxis with our luggage – and that taking the train or public transport is usually the best option to get around? That Osaka, the city of our departure, has a population almost equal to the size of Canada in its entirety?

That on our flight to Bangkok, we would be served ice cream. And that, predictably, while Dan was out at the bathroom, Ariel would ask the flight attendant for seconds – and seconds would come! I’m shaking my head. What I didn’t know, is that Dan had already given Ariel his ice cream cup. Thirds it is, and many more fun parenting moments ahead.

Japon (Nippon): Culture Shock in the Land of the Rising Sun

We are staying in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. We arrived to face a line of women dressed in kimonos poised and ready to greet us with a bow. I’m so awkward with this type of grandiose hospitality. Upon exiting our shuttle bus, the staff were so eager to take my bags, I just handed them all off. I’m more concerned about someone getting in trouble for not doing their job than I am about what I actually need or want as the guest they’re trying to impress. I walk in and the kimono ladies all bow and greet me with smiles, which my Canadian modesty can bear exactly one time. I walk over to check-in and realize I need our passports and therefore have to run back outside to chase my bag down while the woman assigned to help us is apologizing profusely. Walking through the doorway a second time – all the ladies bowing – it’s almost too much.

Our time in Japan began in Tokyo. You know the pictures you see in magazines of Asians wearing face masks? In Japan – and especially Tokyo – face masks are pervasive. People are not wearing them because they are sick, but as a preventative measure. I wish our family had been quicker to jump on the mask-wearing bandwagon. While mask wearing in North America is broadly reserved for hospitals, I think this is one social taboo we should abandon – for good reason. Our second night in Tokyo both Penelope and Elyse developed a horrendous cough, reminiscent of when our big dog Sumo once had Kennel cough (like whooping cough in humans). The sound is bark-like.

To date on this trip, Elyse’s puke count is up to three. Once after a long flight (we’ve medicated her with anti-nausea meds since during subsequent travel) and twice in one day since arriving in the Mt. Fuji region. She happened to be sharing a futon with me, directly facing me, when she appeared to choke on her phlegm from a cough and threw up all over my pillow. The joys of parenthood. After that, she put herself back to bed and slept the entire morning. She got up around lunch time, drank some orange juice and ate some teddy grahams, which also came up. Then she was fine. A kid’s ability to rally is phenomenal, but I’m questioning whether a face mask may have prevented the drama. While it’s hard to say whether the vomiting was a result of her cough or a virus or otherwise, I know for sure that all the travel and tiredness has something to do with it. Also, culture shock!

One night at dinner Elyse asked for pizza. There is no such thing as pizza in Japan, and for the North American – isn’t that weird! Since we’ve arrived here, I’ve been craving Mexican food – give me a grilled chicken pita or fajitas or a Mexican salad – no way! That is just not in Japan’s wheelhouse. If you want oodles of noodles, then Japan’s got your back. I was expecting sushi to be everywhere, but certain dishes are much more prevalent according to their region than others. There must be a region for the kind of sushi we eat, but we are simply not in it, though I have eaten my fair share of sashimi (raw fish). It is such an odd feeling to be completely outside your comfort zone. Stick me in North America and I can get along just fine. I know what food to buy in the grocery store for my kids. I know I can always order something, and have it delivered to my doorstep. Not so in Japan. The hotel we are staying at, the finest in town, or so I’m told, does not serve lunch; you have to find alternative arrangements, if lunch is your thing. And yes, lunch is my thing.

I have little to no Japanese to work with and the English at the front desk of our hotel is mostly limited, but this is the gist of various conversations I had with staff one morning:

My daughter is sick, can we bring food up to the room for her to eat later (from the breakfast buffet).

The response: Umm, no. No, you cannot bring food up to room.

Prior to lunch time, I inquired about where to eat? The response: you cannot eat here.

Is there anywhere to get takeout or can we order in?


Such a difference in culture! While the hospitality here is truly outstanding, in America it’s my way, all the time, when and how I want it. In Japan, there is a system for everything and that is what keeps the country so orderly, fair, clean and functional. Even with housekeeping, with Elyse sleeping off her sickness in our room, we wondered if housekeeping could be shifted to dinner time.

No. Housekeeping is done by 12:30.

The staff were apologetic, but…not really. Because that’s just the way things are, no exceptions. And – at the risk of sounding like I’m complaining – I’m not at all. I respect boundaries. As an organized person myself, I appreciate Japan’s transparency and adherence to rules. I put my trust in these people, but I feel like a bit of a loose cannon in comparison.

Speaking of trust, how about leaving your bags in the hotel lobby after checkout for safe keeping while sightseeing elsewhere? How about bikes left unchained, out in the open, in the big city of Tokyo and not needing to use a safe or lock your door? Japan is so frickin’ safe. And if my sense of safety is only an illusion then the Japanese are master magicians. It’s a culture of caring for the group, not looking out for number one. Case in point. One day, we took a taxi into town to visit a park and famous pagoda with a gorgeous view of Mt. Fuji. We settled on a little restaurant nearby for lunch and were treated like family. Extra treats for the kids and snacks to go. We paid a total of about $20 CAD for our meals. Before we had the chance to ask if they could call us a taxi, the owner’s daughter said she would drive us back to our hotel. And she did. This is the caring and kindness I speak of.

We happened upon our first travel mishap on our way to the Mt. Fuji region. We missed our bus and when I approached the attendant, he was reproachful. I asked him if we had missed our bus and he tapped his watch and said, “Well, look what time it is.”

We were five minutes late. Of course, we missed our bus! What, did we think it would wait for us? That is not how Japan works (or really anywhere, I’m pretty sure, but especially in Japan). And while he had given me a sideways glance, with the click of a button we were on another scheduled bus an hour later, our family seated near one another, no woman seated beside a man outside our family. One word: efficiency.

There are signs translated into English everywhere. Many people speak rudimentary English. But, the even bigger shock to my senses is that most people don’t speak at all. Japan embraces a culture of silence. On the whole, the Japanese are an extremely quiet group of individuals. Emotions are subdued. I smiled and engaged countless people on my 12 km run in Tokyo and the response was almost a unanimous look of bafflement, like what are you doing? I’m trying to be friendly, but I clearly don’t know how.

Having now experienced culture shock, I can empathize better with visitors and new immigrants who join our culture and wonder at our overt displays of emotion, in-your-face friendliness, and comparative lack of hospitality. Our North American boisterousness. The constant chatter.

Japan is so damn quiet. I find myself hushing and whispering constantly.

Those who know me might be snickering. I am who I am. A talker. Outgoing and somewhat obtrusive. Penelope and I went on a lunch date for noodles in an authentic joint and the first thing I did was to loudly knock a glass of water off the table onto the tatami mat. Like we didn’t stick out enough already. The hostess was understanding – she blamed Penelope and I didn’t correct her – but I couldn’t help but shake my head and laugh at my ineptitude. I will never be Japanese. Maybe that sounds funny, and at the risk of generalizing – what I mean to say is I could never operate at that level of perfection. I need a big margin for error. I may never be Japanese, but I will always respect this country for all that it offers and the opportunity it has afforded me to truly feel like an outsider in the best of ways.

Looking through the window, there is so much I’m taking in, including how to graciously accept the person on the other side.

Hawaii Part II: Oahu, Catching A Wave

It’s a Friday, I woke up early this morning, 6am, as I have almost every day for the last week and a half since our travels began. I don’t mind early mornings and travelling west suits me. Looking out our window with a view of the Pacific, there’s a certain quality to the light that isn’t duplicated at any other time of the day. On this last day in Hawaii, I don’t want to miss it. The early morning’s light is as fleeting as our time on the island.

The beach house we stayed in for three nights on Oahu has a row of large ocean-facing windows. When I look out, I can’t help but smile at the surfers that make their way toward big distant waves, paddling far out unfazed, hands cupped with clear strokes, over the sharp rocks and coral and sea turtles and whatever else lies below. For the people here, surfing is a way of life. Our surf photographer first took his baby out at six months old. Locals get up early, pack up their board and gear and make their way down to the beach. With the wind picking up, the surfing conditions appear to be excellent and blinking out at the blue sky, the warm sun overhead, I wish I was heading out there with them. But it’s not to be, we have a flight to catch.

While in Oahu, our entire family had the opportunity to try surfing. From the onset, I was extremely nervous – though I wouldn’t have admitted it – both for myself and because of the helplessness you feel when you’re putting your children’s safety into the hands of another. We had to trust complete strangers to keep our children safe far from shore, amidst powerful ocean waves. Trust can be won and lost in an instant.

Thankfully, we were in highly capable hands with North Shore Surf Girls company. Three instructors, plus a photographer (also a skilled surfer), were there looking out for us, and had our family secure and locked down at all times. The kids each wore a life jacket, for starters, and Dan, Ariel and I were all tethered by the ankle to a giant floatation device – our surfboards. Having instructors was key: they not only showed us the ropes and taught us the beginner basics, but they set up our waves for us. Essentially, they kept an eye on the waves, brought us to the right spot and helped us get into position, then they pushed us into the wave and yelled “Paddle! Paddle!” at which point you paddled with both cupped hands. You then heard “push up!”, which meant you were to slide your hands down to your hips and lift up your chest, so you look like a seal. The next part was up to the surfer. On land, we did a dry run of proper surf technique. For the beginner, push up your chest, then slide up to your hands and knees; next put your right foot forward, push up onto two feet sideways, remembering to keep your knees sufficiently bent and your hands touching the board for balance and to turn your feet sideways, then once – if – you make it that far, both hands come off the board and your arms go out straight for balance. No problem.

Standing at the shore, I cupped my hand up to my face, shielding my eyes, to watch the other surfers out in the distance. What had I been thinking dragging our family into this? To add to the butterflies in my stomach, Penelope was being uncooperative. She wanted nothing to do with this surfing business. With much protestation, we got her onto the board with me, laying her on her stomach, and with Ariel on her own board to the other side of me, one instructor, Alexa, strapped on flippers, then holding onto her surf board with her arms and placing one flippered foot onto both my board and Ariel’s board, we set out into the ocean. She towed us out and maneuvered us carefully, avoiding any big waves, and the first knot in my stomach began to unfurl taking in her skill and agility in the water. Elyse was sitting on a board with Carol, the incredible owner and operator of NSSG and Dan was, funny enough, left to paddle himself out. Jenn, our third instructor set out ahead to create a “holding” area. The holding area was a calm zone in the water where we would wait as a group when not surfing, and the area we had to paddle back to after surfing a wave. You could think of this area as a chairlift on a ski slope.

Once we made it over to Jenn, Dan and Ariel were led immediately over to the waves with Elyse and Carol close by. Jenn made friendly chitchat with me in the holding area while I craned my neck wildly to see where they were taking Dan, Ariel and Elyse. Her voice was soothing and reassuring, but I needed to have eyes on my family. Dan would be the first to try a wave, and I saw him go out and then bail hard. When he fell off, he dipped below the waves and for a minute I couldn’t see him, but next thing you know he popped up with a smile on his face and I watched him paddle off to the right. I allowed my body to relax on the surfboard a smidgeon, but then it was Ariel’s turn to be pushed into a wave and I tensed right back up again on her behalf. They sent her on a wave and there she went, off on her own. She made it to her knees, but I never saw her stand. It all happened so quickly, and I couldn’t see her. Alexa was there to keep an eye on her though and paddled out to meet her when she fell off. I relaxed when I saw my husband and eldest daughter paddling back in my direction and allowed myself to sink down on my surfboard and embrace the bobbing waves, instead of trying to fight them. To enjoy myself, I had to relinquish control, which is hard for me. Dan and Ariel each had a few more turns, and then Elyse went with the instructor too and even stood up (not very willingly, I’m sure). Carol the owner, or auntie Carol as we called her, never once fell off her board or let the kids fall into the water. She made surfing on her knees, holding our children, look effortless. Later in our session, Penelope and Elyse did get to have a swimming session in the water, but otherwise they stayed safely afloat either in the holding area with Dan or I, or on the board with auntie Carol, out surfing the waves. I can’t say they loved it; I think the activity was fairly stressful for them being so novel and foreign to their senses; but at the very least, they were exposed to surfing, kept very safe, entertained and looked after while Dan, Ariel and I got to try our hand at surfing too.

Finally, the moment of truth, it was my turn to surf. Penelope, with much protestation, was removed from my surfboard and onto Dan’s. Alexa waved me over, and so off I paddled. Alexa would be the one to push me into a wave. She must have picked the perfect wave because when she told me to, I paddled, pushed up, got on my hands and knees and before I knew it I was cruising the wave and loving it. The proper way to end your ride is to get back down onto your knees and into the paddling position, and so when my board slowed down, that is what I did. We were told, under no circumstances, should we ride a wave to shore. That is where the shallowest water and dangerous rocks are. Using the technique they taught us, I paddled my way off to the right and back up the “water chairlift” to meet back up with my crew.

“You’re not doing it right!” Dan yelled out to me jokingly, “you’re supposed to fall off.”

I took a second turn with success, then Dan and I traded off again in the holding area.

Now, I’m making this sound easy. The surfboard does give you more support than I imagined, but you still have to contend with the awesome force of the wave beneath you. After my third turn, on my way back up the chairlift, a big roller came my way. We were taught, when coming face to face with a wave, to always turn your board directly at it, versus turning lengthwise or sideways. If you turn sideways, you’re bound to be bulled over, but face to face, you simply push up into that seal position and sail over the wave. The contingency plan, if you don’t think you’re going to be able to push up in time to avoid the crashing wave, is to roll off your board and submerge yourself underwater. This option sounded scary to me, because it contradicted the other advice to remain flat and stretched out when you fall off the board, so you don’t accidently brush against the rocks or coral at the bottom. I was determined to face the waves head on and stay on top of my board. As a second giant wave came my way, I bobbed up in time to see the faces of my crew looking concerned, I pushed up strong and just barely made it over the top of the wave before it crashed on the other side of me. From the holding area, Dan said our photographer had been holding his breath, commenting, “Whoa! I didn’t think she was going to make it.”

On my fourth surf attempt I bailed hard. The wave came too quickly from up underneath me and I never made it to my feet before my board flew out and up into the air. I tumbled under water and grabbed for my ankle like we had been taught, reaching for the cord that would get me back to my board as soon as possible where I could hoist myself up and paddle to safety.

“I guess you didn’t hear me say to push up, huh?” Jenn asked me kindly on my way back. I was plowed over by the wave.

While Ariel silently refused to try standing while surfing on her own, once she rode tandem with auntie Carol she rocked it. The whole time we surfed I could see the worry written all over her face; she takes after her parents in being risk-averse, so I was surprised when in the car ride after the experience, when we were all exhausted, she asked, “So when are we going surfing again?”

But I shouldn’t have been surprised, because now I understand what draws people to surfing. At least, I know what draws me to surfing. Harnessing the power of the awesome wave beneath you is an incredible feeling. Once I let go of my anxieties, out riding the waves, then I truly felt in control. Being able to tame mother nature in this small way is so gratifying. Or perhaps tame is the wrong word. It’s more of a partnership, a unison, a meditation of becoming one with the wave. There is definitely a thrill. When I made it over the crest of that second giant wave, the sense of relief and redemption was palpable. I had been pulled under the water and spit out upon our arrival in Hawaii, but not this time. This time I came out on top, riding the waves.

On our way to the airport, as we bade Hawaii goodbye, the melodic ukulele strumming in Somewhere Over the Rainbow playing through the car speakers, I got misty-eyed at the reality of our leaving.

“What’s wrong with your eyes, mommy? Penelope asked.

We made a family pact to one day come back to the North Shore, to shaved ice and acai bowls; to lush tropical forests and waterfalls and crystal blue waters as far as the eye can see.

And when we do, I’m going to ride those waves.

Big Island, Hawaii: The Black Rock

As the designated Big Island driver, I’ve had less time for writing and travel musings in my notebook as I’ve been driving all over this black rock. Hawaii. The place where new land is made. During our time here, there’s one theme that keeps coming back to me, hanging out in my mind, and so naturally that is what I will write about. But first let’s get the obvious out of the way: Hawaii is paradise. There is no question about that. But it’s a natural paradise, rough and rugged, alive and vibrant and the forces at play are not only elemental, but unstoppable.

I got my first taste of the island’s awesome power on the shores of Kua Bay. If you were to choose a swimmer in our family, it would be me. My affinity for water is well known (especially by my friends and family who have pools) and so immediately after disembarking from our flight I slotted in a trip to the closest beach. I knew Big Island was about visiting volcanoes rather than being renowned for its amazing swimming and beaches, but I hadn’t understood the awesome force of the currents.

When we arrived at Kua Bay, the beach was a dazzling array of turquoise waters and lush palms. As the self-proclaimed water tester, I approached the crashing beach waves with a degree of caution, but also with the air of someone who knows they are a competent swimmer. Within minutes, when I did a slight jump with my back into the wave, I was sucked right under and spit back out, coughing and sputtering, my sun hat lost in the wave. Well, hello there Hawaii, I thought; you like it rough; I see how it is. Danger. Imminent threat. Could it be otherwise on an island with not one, but two volcanoes? The most recent of which erupted in 2018 causing devastation to everything in its path and the loss of 7,000 homes. The apparent danger is everywhere, and yet, you really aren’t afraid, instead you feel emboldened. The stark beauty of the ocean, the lush land; the land that can erupt and the ocean that can pull you under. There’s a balance to be found here, a place in between, teetering on the edge.

On our second day we drive to visit the caldera of Mauna Loa. Hot steam vents surround the massive crater in the earth, and Elyse, right on point, is terrified when we tell her we are going up to see a volcano. “No!” she wails convincingly, “it’s too hot!” She has seen the pictures. She knows what burning rock can do.

Arriving at our beach house, Dan realizes there’s no coffee. Not being a coffee drinker myself, but understanding his need to caffeinate in the morning, I suggest we stop at a coffee plantation on our drive to the volcano. I was sure I’d read something about a store nearby. Coffee beans, pre-roasting, if you’ve never seen them, are cherry red. I was excited to show the girls the beans and get Dan his cup of Joe.

I hung a right into the driveway of the first coffee plantation we arrived at. As we drove down the incredibly steep laneway, it occurred to me that this could be a terrible mistake. It was a Sunday morning. What if the store wasn’t open? What if there wasn’t a store at all? What if the property owners weren’t understanding or grew upset about our intrusion – because this is what this was.

I shifted into park at the place that seemed the most promising and offered to take a look around. We were in the middle of what looked like a jungle and there was no one to be seen, just a few cottages belonging to some sort of retreat. There was a narrow pathway that disappeared into a thicket of trees. This seemed to be my only option. I took it. My heart was beating wildly in my chest. Where was everybody? Hello? The next minute, I ran into a man who didn’t speak English and seemed quite surprised to see me, but he was pleasant and gave me a smile.

“One minute! One minute! I go get…I go get…”

Who’s he going to get? It didn’t matter. I was committed now. He disappeared into one of the cottages.
A woman emerged and greeted me warmly as two oversized German Shepard’s appeared out of nowhere and made a full display of barking and howling aggressively. A second man appeared from the cottage and waved the dogs off. I relaxed when the dogs seemed harmless and appeared to listen to their owners who were clearly communicating there was no need to eat me. I explained to the couple that my husband needed coffee when my kids loud voices back at the van roused the dogs’ shackles back up and sent them into another barking fit. They took off full speed in the direction of my family; I hoped Dan would close the doors in time.

Though there was no store, and they only shipped their coffee overseas, in the end I walked away with a delicious bag of the freshest ground coffee you can imagine, and a ziplock bag of macadamia nuts – an island specialty – the kind woman told me she had roasted only the night before.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Best macadamia nuts I’ve ever tasted.

Back to swimming in the ocean. Once you make it past the shorebreak, and let me tell you, THE SHOREBREAK IS REAL (Dan and I joked about this after I was pulled under and we had essentially ignored the signs); once you make it out there, there’s salt and sea creatures to contend with. After Kua Bay, we found a calmer, kid-friendly idyllic tide pool thanks to a conversation with a friendly local who told us about the spot where he took his grandkids. Fact. We all know there are sharks in the ocean. Fact. Sharks don’t usually eat people, let’s remember that for later in the story. Sea creatures don’t usually want to hurt people either, but we all have a need to protect ourselves.

Even at the tide pool, danger lurked around the corner. As I wade into the water, a young boy, eight or nineish in age, tells me, “oh, don’t go that way. That’s usually where the sea urchins are.”

“The what?”

“The sea urchins. They have spikes and if you step on them they will hurt you.”

Oh, I know what they are. The question is why are they where I want to swim? That was my initial arrogant approach. Then we hung out for a while and watched as the other kids and a local family discovered the sea life around us. There were black crabs scurrying on the rocks and a hermit crab. The mother of the family was scooping up sea urchins in her bare hands and passing them to her toddler. I talked to the children who lived there and found out that if you don’t press on a sea urchin, it has suction cup tentacles that don’t hurt you at all – they tickle. Sea urchins generally stick to the bigger rocks, so avoid the rocks. I laughed at the silly sea cucumber that look like a…umm…what’s a polite way to say this…a black soggy cucumber. The kids told me if you squeeze a sea cucumbers it pees. Maybe don’t squeeze them. There was a black brittle star, a creepy starfish looking thing, that clung to the underside of rocks and gets its name because of its fragility – if you pull on one of its limbs, the limb detaches. For that reason I felt protective of the little guy.

Once the scariness factor was removed from the sea creatures and the girls and I were exposed to them, like with everything else – once we are informed – we felt safe and could fully enjoy our natural surroundings. Not to mention the majestic sea turtles we encountered at a different beach later.

But, remember, balance. There needs to be balance, and to tip the scales in the favour of danger we factor in a good shark attack story.

While at the gentle kid-friendly tide pool I was chatting with a mom Elyse had really taken a liking to. She’s done this a few times now, buttering other mothers up, then throwing herself at them like she’s in need of a new mother, a better family. Oreo, my dog, does the same exact thing. We’ll be walking together in one direction, and another family will pass us by and Oreo will turn and start walking with them. I’m trying not to take this personally. Anyway, I ask this woman what she knows about the Ironman finals that are held on the island. I’ve recently signed up for my very first Ironman. The championship race recently took place in Kona. She explains the participants start out in Kona Bay for the almost 4 km swim. As she’s telling the story, her face clouds over. Someone she knows from work, not two days before the Ironman race was held, disappeared in Kona Bay. He was night fishing, alone. They found his belt and dive kit with big teeth marks in it.

“A shark got him,” she explains.

As I’m thinking of those elite athletes getting in the water a few days later, she retorts, “Yeah, they sure didn’t advertise it. That one got swept under the rug.”

On our final day on Big Island, we visited one final beach with tide pools for the kids and a coral reef for Dan and I to explore snorkeling.

“There’s a reef shark out there,” a local woman explained to me, she gestures at Ariel, “its mouth probably isn’t even big enough to eat her.”

We didn’t swim out there to find out.

Now, as the sun is setting its final rays, I’m urging my crew, let’s hike out to that cliff point, one final hurrah as darkness sets in, a final opportunity with high stakes: the chance to see humpback whales.

But as night falls, watch your step, the black rock cuts deep.

California: The Souls of Dinosaurs

Elyse wakes up at 4:13 a.m. It’s our first morning in San Francisco and we’re staying in a hotel room Dan booked on points.

Our free hotel room consists of two separate rooms, includes a full kitchen, and that morning we enjoy a complimentary hot breakfast. We swim in the “heated” sparkling pool upon our arrival. We are pleasantly surprised.

My husband graciously slides out of bed, checks on Elyse in the bathroom. There’s the pitter-patter of feet and two more sisters out of bed. I get out of bed to help but insist on keeping the lights out to try and hold onto the night. We’re all shuffling around in the dark.

The day before, on the first day of our ‘round the world trip, we arose shortly after 4 a.m. eastern time. We woke the girls from their peaceful slumbers – what felt like a violent act – and loaded them into the minivan. We ate a rushed breakfast past airport security then were delighted to find ourselves in row eighteen of the plane, the first row past business class with extra leg room. The girls were even gifted an activity bag as they boarded the plane containing earphones for the onboard TVs, a colouring book and a small foam game of exes and oes.

The first five hours of our flight from Toronto to California were smooth sailing. The girls settled happily into their seats, ensconcing themselves in ipad land, embracing permission long denied, finally granted, to go back to their beloved screens. Around the four-hour point of our flight, Dan and I insisted Elyse forfeit her screen to use the washroom on the plane. She was belligerent about the request but didn’t cause much of a scene. When we unstrapped her from her seat she flopped onto the floor down on her bottom. She insisted on being carried to the bathroom. Dan didn’t mind obliging, but we should have taken this as a sign. When the duo returned from the bathroom a second time, Elyse climbed into Dan’s lap and tumbled into sleep. Her sleepiness was atypical, but not unusual given the circumstances. When Elyse awoke an hour later, it was time for landing. Penelope was getting giddy and worked up by this point in the five hour and forty-five-minute flight and when disconnected from her screen, Ariel had been uncharacteristically scowly and cantankerous. As the plane commenced its descent, tempers flared. Ariel and Penelope, seated to my left, went after each other. There was catty poking and swatting, eye rolling and whining. In other words, typical childish behaviour from kids who haven’t had enough sleep.

Our plane touches down seamlessly and I look over across the aisle to see Elyse slouched down in her seat like a sack of potatoes. My two quarreling girls are settling, their cat fight giving way to the novelty of the moment – t’was but a scratch – when the words you never want to hear as a parent come barrelling out of my husband’s mouth, “Are you going to be sick? Elyse, are you going to be sick?” Elyse looks placid, pale. Like she might cry. She’s dry heaving and making that gagging sound kids make when they’re trying to throw up. Passengers are disembarking all around us. Thinking fast on his feet, Dan reaches for the activity bag, containing headphones and all, and Elyse vomits into it. As it turns out, the poor kid suffers from motion sickness. And so we arrived in San Fran with a splash!

We got our rental car sorted without problem, Elyse recovered nicely and we were swimming in the hotel pool feeling nice and relaxed by early afternoon, having gained three hours heading west. On our drive to dinner, not surprisingly, Penelope fell asleep and by 8 p.m, it’s safe to say, we were all knackered. Ariel and Penelope slept together and fell asleep in the exact position they first laid down in and Elyse took the pull-out, joining them in dreamland a few minutes later, with Dan and I not far behind them.

Why then, at 4:13 a.m., when our kids woke up in San Fran, did they seem so damn fresh?

By 5:15 a.m. I’ve given up on trying to get the girls to go back to sleep. Any pretense of getting them to rest has faded away, so I turn on a light and pull out their books. Dan has clamoured back into our bed and as I flop down beside him, I feel a deep-seated exhaustion, despite having gone to bed the night before at 8:30 p.m. My legs are lead, my head all foggy clouds, like the ones we flew through high in the air and the ones down below us enshrouding California hill tops.

“Why don’t the kids feel exhausted?” I bemoan to my bedside partner.

“because they didn’t have to get themselves here.”

Elyse interrupts our sleep a few minutes later.

“I want breakfast.”

Our time in San Francisco did not disappoint. We visited the tall and majestic sequoia trees in Muir Woods National Park. We took a short boat ride to Alcatraz – “The Rock” – and took a stroll down to Pier 39 to gawk at sea lions and ride the merry-go-round. We ate clam chowder at Fisherman’s wharf and gazed out over the Pacific as the sun set in a dazzling array of purples, pinks and oranges. We crossed the Golden Gate bridge and stopped to take pictures. We experienced crime and big city problems. Homelessness. Bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the middle of the day, the car beside ours was broken into, smashed glass everywhere. There was a bomb threat nearby and several earthquakes an hour or so away. Nobody seemed perturbed. In comparison, I appreciate the relative calm and safety of our small town; the uneventfulness of small-town Ontario. Big city, big problems. Yet, San Francisco is not without its charms and character. Scooters and bikes and motorized skateboards abound. The giant sequoias and hearty palms, windswept vistas overlooking the ocean, and picturesque rows of stucco houses that go on and on in tiers packed into hillsides. Roads that disappear into the horizon. A shoreline with surfers, pelicans and sea lions; and who could forget that California sunshine. Even when it’s cold in San Fran, it isn’t really cold.

On our way into the city we came across miles and miles of white tombstones. An entire cemetery of them in the heart of the city. Ariel asked what we were seeing from the backseat. I told her it was a graveyard, and Dan added,
“That’s where soldiers are buried.”
“That’s where the souls of dinosaurs are buried!?” Ariel was incredulous.

California has class and soul. The city has grit, but its inhabitants are peppy, friendly. Sun-shiny. On one such vista overlooking the Golden Gate bridge and the endless city, Ariel and I stumbled across a blond in a leather jacket, chest heaving, one leg propped up on her Harley with her burley fiancé, hipster beard and all, pressed up behind her for a photo shoot. With the golden gate bridge in the background, the pacific and steep drop to our left, I thought, yeah, this is San Francisco.