A Summer’s Day

I don’t have to tell you how hard it is to find the time to write or to work in the summer months – you already know. About cottages and the sun dancing across great lakes like sparkling diamonds; and children, rummaging for the hem of my shirt, lifting it up to press a smudgy face into my belly. I accidentally wrote “life it up” – I’m not convinced that wasn’t my unconscious intention.

You already know about the Sufi mystic Rumi and his love poems, and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and reading about, intuiting, the link between meditation and running. Meditation is meditation, running is running and writing is writing. Remember that.

You already know about sandy toes and the outdoor hose used to rinse before traipsing through the beach house, and the dead spider floating in the rusty bowl meant to catch the overflow. You know about wet bathing suits and coming together as a family for a bear hug in the water and jumping over waves, one after the other, all together! And screaming, screaming like banshees, and pulling little faces back out of the waves and laughing, laughing until you’re screaming again.

You already know how it is on vacation, when your outside life keeps banging at the door, demanding to be let back in. “Go away!” you shout, and how vacation isn’t really a vacation until you can let your mind go free.

You already know about afternoon G&Ts, followed by steak and red wine dinners, pulling chopped pieces of wood from the burlap bag you bought for $5 from the guy who lives on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, dragging that bag down the beach with your bare hands and little footprints behind you. About towels caught in the wind, blown to the ground, half buried in sand. The incessant wind. A wind that dries, cools, mends, soothes and breaks. The string that snapped, the kite that drowned. The waves that appear out of nowhere. And how the water can just as suddenly quiet.

You already know about fussy toilets and setting up floor fans to disperse warm air in humid rooms. And the oppressive heat that settles overhead in the middle of the day and beats you right back into submission, sand that burns soles and whiny children needing to be carried back into the house, sleepy and sun stroked in your arms.

Fires at night, with the wood you bought from the guy on the side of the road; many false starts then flames bursting, licking the wood, ravenous; finding that perfect spot for handmade roasting sticks and the one marshmallow that inevitably gets burnt, beyond eating. S’mores and sticky fingers. Chocolate-smeared faces.

A burning, searing sensation on the top of your head, causing your hairline to itch, the nauseous nagging feeling of too much sun and the pull back inside, but the counter-weight of the wind and water, of the glittering shoreline, is greater still. The gasp, “Ahh” as the water line accosts your chest, your soft side, and the chill and thrill of diving under. That refreshing feeling, as the water heaves, breathes you in, of being part of it all. Floating, tethered like a buoy, weightlessness.

About food, again. Gummy bears and a giant chocolate almond bar and pretentious crackers: organic artisan crisps of raisin, rosemary and pumpkin seed made with bulgar, Himalayan pink salt and extra virgin olive oil slathered in cream cheese and red pepper jelly. About stops at the cheese shop for squeaky curds and the local farmer’s market for peas so fresh they make you want to weep. At the fleetingness of time and seasons. And tiny beets. And cleaning out Beans Bistro of all their freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies. About letting calories go.

About waking up before everyone else and cracking open a book, or watching the ducks float by, or the sun setting a sub-Saharan Africa red; or throwing on a bathing suit and cutting through the lake one efficient stroke after the other to train, or to throw on a pair of running shoes and run, run, run, feeling the pull of the wind.

About leaving showering behind, letting the children go feral with one eye open and sticking out your tongue at the passage of time with only the shadows of the sun and the rumbling of tummies to remind you that the day is moving on and you probably should too.

About thoughts from the outside world: the upcoming triathlon; planning a writer’s retreat; a trip around the world; writing that next book, and extended family – how goes our family back home? What is everyone up to? Grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Of course, the world continues to go on.

And about monkey brain. Do you know about monkey brain? It’s when your mind hops from one thing to the next and lacks the focus to stay entirely on one subject. I am a monkey brain.

But you already know about all that. Our Canadian summer, wild and free. Fleeting. Snippets of life, at the cottage. Carry on.

Around-The-World-Trip Part II

Our trip begins in Thailand, the sky ablaze with floating lights. Having experienced Asia in 2014 when I travelled to Delhi and Chennai in India for the World Down Syndrome Congress, I knew I wanted my family to experience that vibrant and chaotic side of the world, and I wanted to do so in an authentic way. I can think of nothing more authentic than attending a festival, and Loy Krathong is a big one. Yee Peng, the lighting and releasing of  lanterns into the sky, is a small festival within Loy Krathong. In this way, Thailand became our official starting destination; we would work backwards – or rather – around the world, from there. But where to next, and how best to get from Canada to Thailand and avoid dreadfully long flights?

While we hadn’t been having the best of luck with travel agents to date, I decided to give the travel agent game one last try. This was a good move. While there are challenges working with others: waiting for email replies, trying to convey your vision, explaining why 24-hour flights won’t work to a person without children…our travel agent has proved invaluable, especially when it came to booking our flights, and helping us to form an itinerary that makes sense.

Nancy came to us with an understanding of flight paths, how to best organize plane tickets, and industry connections and knowledge. She taught us there is a real thing known as an Around-the-World ticket, or as it’s short-formed, RTW ticket. Booking a RTW ticket through Star Alliance, which is what we are doing, is saving us more than half on ticket fares for each destination. This is worth spreading and repeating. If you’re planning a trip with multiple stops, RTW tickets save you money – loads of it!!! I’m talking 45 days of travel to five destinations for five people for under twenty grand. This is not an insignificant chunk of change by any means, but I can assure you that number would be well over twenty grand if we booked each ticket separately. If I had been left solely in charge, I shiver to think of the financial consequence.

Which brings us next to destinations. Dan and I have long discussed a trip to Hawaii to celebrate our ten year anniversary, which passed this summer – why not work Hawaii into our RTW trip we reasoned? We therefore decided to leave Canada and head around the world in that direction. We had to decide between Vancouver or California as a stopover point on our way to Hawaii to break up the long flights. We decided on San Francisco, California for two reason. One, none of us have ever been there, and two, because of the coastal redwoods and Muir National Park which houses the ancient sequoias, the largest trees in the world with some as old as 1,200 years. THAT seemed like a sight to see that the kids would enjoy. Also, who doesn’t delight in a large bridge and an island prison?

After a short four days in San Francisco, we fly to the Big Island of Hawaii. I was locked in to flying to Big Island (Kona airport) to see the volcanoes the island, and the region, are famous for. Hawaii is made up of hundreds of islands, but there are eight main islands, with Hawaii (Big Island) being the largest. Based on our next destination of Japan, which Dan and I decided would be “neat” to see, to say the least, according to our trusty travel agent we needed to fly out of Honolulu on O’ahu (different island). This meant splitting up our week-long trip to Hawaii into two sections. With the inter-island flight lasting only an hour, the situation wasn’t terrible. While not ideal, we’ll get to see what we want to see, explore more islands this way AND stay in not one, but TWO awesome beach houses. Win win. We are hoping to surf, view sea turtles and check out an active volcano in Hawaii’s Volcanoes National Park along Crater Rim Drive. Lava, I want to see lava!

From Honolulu, we are flying to Tokyo, Japan. Japan has been on my list of places to stop since the inception of our RTW plan. I just think it will be otherworldly. I was disappointed many cruise lines didn’t include it on their RTW itineraries, but geographically speaking, the island is a bit out of the way. Flying gave us the freedom to choose, and choose Japan we did. Hawaii to Japan made sense, in terms of the flight path, and it got us closer to Thailand.

I’m in the process of planning our accommodations for Japan right now, which can feel overwhelming. I love the ‘translate this page’ option, with translations off Japanese sites like, “Please enjoy original dishes mainly on Japanese food that is kind to your body and mind.” And “The dining room is a dining room where you can enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of adults using stone materials.” I can only imagine what barbaric translations our websites must spew into Japanese, with expressions like “all you can eat buffets”.

Our Japan leg of the trip is going to be exhausting. Not only is there an eleven hour time difference, but we have plans to arrive in Tokyo, travel to the Kawaguchiko Lake region to view Mount Fuji, travel back to Yokohama, Japan’s second largest city near Tokyo to catch the four hour bullet train ride to Hiroshima; then plan to travel by train to Kyoto and finally to Osaka, our final Japan destination. We have eleven days to do this. I’m working on it. I’m extremely excited about this leg of the trip. The only hitch is that the Rugby World Cup is being hosted in Japan at the same time we are there. This will make the whole country much busier than usual, but it also means we get to be caught up in a part of history, the first time the cup match is being held outside of Australia/ New Zealand, and experience some of the hype. Remember the authenticity I was now striving for? We’re going to dive right in in Japan.

From Osaka, Japan, we fly to Bangkok, Thailand. Through one of my guide books (I prefer Lonely Planet) I discovered there’s an amazing jungle about an hour outside of the city with some fantastic short hikes. We’re talking about the opportunity to experience the jungle and all its inhabitants on a one to two kilometer jaunt. As a family who loves to hike, this seemed like a must. Next, we’ll head to the North of Thailand to Chiang Mai, an excellent place to stay and take in the festival of Loy Krathong, and the best place to get to an elephant sanctuary for rehabilitated animals.

After all of this travel and stimulating commotion, it seemed only natural that we unwind for a week on one of Thailand’s stunning family-friendly islands. We plan to do just that on the island of Ko Samui. From Ko Samui, we fly back to Bangkok, before a monster twelve-hour flight, the longest on our trip, to Frankfurt, Germany. After a less than twenty-four hour stopover in Germany (so that it doesn’t actually count as one of our stops on our RTW ticket), we fly a few hours to the southern-most part of Europe, Lisbon, Portugal. We debated other European countries, but by this time, mid-to-late November, most of Europe will be cooled down, and we tried to stick with moderate to warm climates. Japan is the exception, in that it will be fall when we are there in late October to early November. Light jackets and sweatshirts are easier to pack than winter gear.

We plan to spend four days in Lisbon, taking in Europe’s cobblestone streets and cafes, giving the kids enough of a taste to whet their appetite. We know we will be back to Europe, so we can justify this short stop tease. From Lisbon, it’s an eight hour flight back to good ol’ Toronto, Canada, with enough family memories, I’m sure, to last a lifetime.

I can’t wait to see what we’ll learn, experience, feel, each of us on our own and as a family. This trip will be a stretch for us all, to be sure, but more than anything, I hope it is quality time living life together, and the first of many more amazing travel adventures to come. While our trip encompasses several countries and continents, North America, Asia, Europe… we haven’t forgotten about South America, Africa, the rest of Europe… the question, as always, is what will it take to get there? While travel is a luxury, and certainly not one everyone is able or willing to afford, for many of us, it is only beyond our reach if we aren’t willing to prioritize and make the necessary sacrifices to make it happen. And if you’re like me, and you want it all, maybe you can have that to. I wish that for you.

I plan to write about this trip like it’s everybody’s business, but I can’t promise when it will be posted because I want to be in the moment, not writing about it. What I do guarantee is that at some point I most certainly will be posting about it, maybe in the form of a book turned Master’s thesis.

Until then, we have the summer together before we leave this fall. WE LEAVE THIS FALL!!!!

I hope you will dream big, travel far and do life as a family the way you would do you. Do you. Be happy.
As I’m learning in Japanese, Oshiawase ni! May you be happy, and Yoi tabi o! Have a good trip.

Around-The-World Trip Part I

We have had something brewing for a long time – over three years now. Something big. It’s easy for me to remember how long it’s been because the idea came to me when I was pregnant with Penelope who turns three this week. When I texted Dan at work to tell him I had one of my BIG ideas, I’m sure he was bracing himself. When I get a big idea in my head, it’s hard to change my mind. Later that evening, I approached the subject lightly, after all, I didn’t want to come on too strong and ruin my chances of Dan accepting my big idea. “What about,” I began, “if we downsized and lived in a cheaper house, and then used the money we made on the sale of our home to travel around the world?” I tried not to sound too hopeful. I tried to tame the bubbling excitement rising from my throat. “Yeah,” Dan said, seemingly unfazed, “that could work.”

And so, what began as an idea over three years ago shifted into shape. The first step, we both agreed, was to sell our home, “our Castle on the Hill” as I sometimes refer to it. That house was on a lovely, extremely private cul-de-sac, surrounded by tall trees and lush greenery. We even owned a section of the common greenspace with our neighbours. Yet, we had rushed into it.  We had some fantastic neighbours and a coveted address in town, but…I felt somewhat trapped. After paying our mortgage, we didn’t have any extra money to do much of anything else. We were house poor. I eventually wanted a pool in our backyard, but our Castle on the Hill was set into a steep hill. There was zero chance of a pool ever happening. From a practical standpoint, a kitchen looking over the backyard is best with small children; you can let them out and watch them play while cooking and preparing the many meals and snacks small kids require. Our kitchen looked onto our neighbour’s yard, which offered a picturesque view but was useless otherwise. The best place to play outside was on our large side deck on the other side of the house, away from the kitchen. Unfortunately, there was a pond on that side deck, and so I could never leave my young children to pop in and grab something we inevitably needed. Going outside became a production, and if you know me, and my love for running, cycling, exploring and hiking the outdoors, this was not a good combination. I also questioned the value in owning a bigger home. I began to resent the cleaning and maintenance that often fell on my shoulders as the one who was home. The way I saw it: bigger house equals more to take care of. I wanted less. So you see, there was more than one reason for us to move, and travel made the whole idea of moving so much more glamorous and appealing. This is classic Adelle – I’m very “treat” motivated. I’ll do just about anything, including moving with a newborn, if you dangle the right carrot.

I make it sound like we made the decision to uproot our lives and travel the world in an instant – we did and we didn’t. We discussed the matter for months, spent time looking at other houses and considering our options, but Dan and I both tend to make up our minds quickly when something feels right, and I think we both knew right away that travelling, and spending an extended period of time together as a family, was something we both wanted to do.

I continued to dream big, imaging us boarding an around-the-world cruise as a family of five, voyaging the oceans of the world for over a hundred days, seeing as many countries as possible. That was our original plan, and we repeated the mantra many times over, let’s see as many countries as possible! We imagined we might be able to plan our trip for when our baby-to-be was eighteen months old, only two years away from the inception of our plan. We were over-ambitious, and a big dose of reality would help to sort things out.

Our house did sell – not for as much money as we wanted or hoped for, but the first phase of our plan was complete. We visited my friend’s mom, a cruise specialist and learned those hundred day cruises would cost in the $200k range for a family of five, and that, well, not many families of five did this kind of trip, but we’d potentially have a lot of loving grandparents to help out! I wasn’t ready to admit it yet, but that kind of disposable income was unfathomable and downright impossible – short of selling our house and not purchasing another. After deliberating over that idea, we ruled it out. If we wanted to cruise, we would have to shorten our trip, though I wasn’t ready to admit that either.

In the meantime, I gave birth to our beautiful baby girl in the house we would soon move out of. We knew we wanted to plan a big trip, but we didn’t know exactly when or where. We would wait for the cruise lines to come out with their itineraries for the next year and see where that took us, and what we could piece together.

It’s not that the trip really ever slipped our minds – more like life took over. We found our new home (thanks Alexis!), Dan and I packed up our house while caring for a five and three year old, plus a newborn, and then moved into our new home when Penelope was one month old. Why do big life changes often happen at the same time as new babes? What is it about new life, and its inverse – the loss of life, that propels us forward?

The girls started at the French school around the corner and we began to settle into this chosen life. There was only one thing Dan couldn’t stand about our new house, and that was the kitchen. Fun fact about downsizing: you need to get rid of some of your stuff! There was nowhere to put our pots and pans in our new kitchen, so we had a Costco fold-out table permanently on display by our back sliding door to store our kitchen wares. After some minor disagreements, we came to terms on spending the money the following summer to renovate our kitchen, which was our main living space – but that that would be it. The rest of the money we made from downsizing would go into our trip. We thought we could do our kitchen on the cheap, maybe IKEA, or some combination of quick fixes. I threw out a random budget of $7000 max, but was dismayed when we started researching actual costs for kitchens we liked. We spent over four times that in the end, though I have to say Dan was right and I love having a functional new kitchen. But I digress.

We hadn’t heard from our travel agent in a while, and time was slipping away. What about those cruises? Weren’t any coming up? After reaching out a few times, and not hearing back from her, I decided to reach out to another agent who got on it right away, pulling together a variety of cruises that might peak our interest. The problem was, we didn’t want a fourteen-day Japan cruise. We wanted to see the world! We continued to operate under the mantra, let’s see as many countries as possible! We worked with this new travel agent and found a wonderful cruise encompassing a beautiful cross-section of the world. The price was still an issue, but we’d figure it out. By this time, a year had passed since we’d moved and it looked like our baby would be two and a half by the time we would be going on our trip.

We thought we were all set. The travel agent said prices for the cruise weren’t posted yet, but as soon as they were, she’d let us know and we could book! I was euphoric, hopeful, and impatient. We leaked the news to a few friends and neighbours about our impending big trip. Then the unthinkable happened. As one of Dan’s work colleagues says to his children when they’re pouting, “There are Big Deals, and there are Little Deals. Is this a Big Deal or a Little Deal?” For us, the Little Deal was that the cruise we wanted ended up being fully booked over a year in advance – our agent hadn’t known the prices weren’t showing up because all options were already taken. We had been waiting an entire year, wasting time – for nothing. Then, the Big Deal. This kind, vivacious woman in her forties whom I had been talking to over the phone, explaining our dreams, called to tell me she would be on leave, and that a friend would be taking over her clients for the time being. A month later, I saw on Facebook that she had passed away. Brain cancer. She left behind a husband and a nine year old son.

Her passing was a terrible reminder that you just never know, to hug your loved ones close – all those clichés – but it also spurred me on to BOOK THAT TRIP TODAY realizing tomorrow may never come. For her, it didn’t. As life happened around us, and our money pile continued to dwindle, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I got this idea from the movie Tangled – the Disney version of Rapunzel – that it would be incredible to see lantern lights released into the sky. When I realized the scene that plays out in Tangled is a real-life festival in Thailand, I had to see it. I thought the kids would love it, and that that would be a great place to visit on our trip. I now had a concrete destination in mind. While cruising had seemed like the easiest option for travelling with three small children, the realities and expense of booking the perfect cruise were sinking in. I questioned our mantra of, let’s see as many countries as possible! What was this, a race? Wasn’t it more important to actually see and experience the countries that we visited? I had been doing some travelling on my own and with Dan in the meantime, and started to realize my priorities had shifted. More did not necessarily equal better. Quality over quantity. Maybe that’s become my new mantra. Let’s enjoy our life together. I asked, what can we do that is doable and enjoyable for us and our three small kids?

Thailand was the spark that lit the fire for our new plan. We would take to the skies.

To Give

My children bring out my best (and worst) qualities. I’m not sure if that makes me sound like a good or bad parent, forgetting that such judgements shouldn’t be made, but I know it makes me a human being. The resulting transformations and affirmations of self come about in two ways: the easy way, and the hard way.

Let’s start with the easy way, shall we.

The easy way was last night putting Penelope to bed. I’m fighting a cold, but she insisted on mommy’s presence and I know why. She is enchanted with our nightly ritual of oral story telling. As I laid downstairs on the couch, feeling miserable, but peaceful and resting, my eyes glued to the page of a book, she tugged away at my arm, “Come on mommy! It’s bedtime! You have to go to bed now! I need you!”

“Oh sweetheart, daddy’s going to tell you a story tonight.”

“No!”

“He’s going to tell you the story of the purple octopus.” Purple’s her favourite colour.

She considered this, and when Dan picked up the thread, playing along, she weaved her way upstairs and into bed. But sleep never came, and so I found myself by her bedside.

“Mommy, now can YOU please tell me the story of the purple octopus?”

Her poor daddy tried, but as though co-conspirators, Penelope and I huddled together waiting to hear the REAL story, the one her mommy would make up. I believe she was employing the same rationale Ariel uses when it comes to her lunch cesar salads. I wash and cut up two pieces of romaine lettuce which go in a square container. I then put one scoop of dressing in a separate container and Ariel mixes the two at school. Salad made, voila! If her dad makes her salad, following the exact same steps I might add, it inevitably comes home uneaten, the comment being, “mommy just makes it better.”

I realized, sitting there at Penelope’s bedside and making up the story of the purple octopus who lived deep down in the ocean and wrapped itself around the submarine Penelope was riding in because it wanted a hug, that I was completely delighted and in my element storytelling with my child. Penelope was equally enthralled, which only served to reinforce this notion I have of my third child being a kindred spirit. We get each other. Our personalities jive. I rarely find myself feeling anger toward Penelope’s behaviours because I understand her so well; I know exactly where she’s coming from. So there’s that, but also because it is easy to do what I naturally enjoying doing in the company of someone who adores and appreciates my doing it.

These are the moments of parenting when I don’t have to stretch myself to grow, I’m simply doing what I love best, being myself, and my children are benefitting. These are the moments that effortlessly evoke my best self.
Now let’s talk about the hard way we grow as parents. The lessons we learn from parenting by taking the long way around.

Often to grow we need to fail. We need to get it wrong so we can figure out how to get it right. Elyse’s hair has been one of those things we have failed at many times, but for which we are striving to get right. For as long as I can remember, my attempts to brush Elyse’s hair have brought on tears. And I’m not talking about a few tears. I’m talking about wailing, screaming, outrage. Not every time, but often enough that there’s a sore spot there. The mere mention of the brushing of her hair can bring wrath and meltdown city (as Dan and I call it). We have tried everything when it comes to brushing her hair. Different combs, brushes, de-tanglers. Mom or dad brushing gently right out of the tub, or when her hair’s dried, or the next morning; Elyse brushing her own hair, keeping it long or cutting it short, brushing more frequently or less frequently, trying to build in a routine, trying to brush at her schedule and pace to varying degrees of success. We’re finally at a better place with her hair brushing – she does it mostly herself, but we still have to help her do her hair. I cannot say that this screaming and crying behaviour from Elyse evokes the best behaviour from me. Of course it doesn’t! At a certain point, her tears left me feeling angry, resentful, and helpless. This has to get done! What do you want from me? I want to scream. It’s hard to admit when you’re a mother feeling like she doesn’t know what her child wants or needs. Thank goodness for siblings and insight.

Over the weekend, Elyse had her dance recital. I should make it clear to you that dance and music are Elyse’s life. She lives through movement, and in moments of tension, we often find solace and common ground through music and dance. Knowing full well I would be on hair duty for the recital, I took many deep breaths in preparation for the tears that would ensue in getting her ready to perform. Even as adults, it’s hard to break a pattern of thought and to think positively about a situation that once, or many times, has caused you emotional hardship. Burn me once…

Anyway, Elyse was a champ getting ready. She let me brush through her incredibly long hair with a comb after Dan did her tub, and she did an initial brushing herself. She staved off the tears that eventually rolled down her cheeks for as long as she could, but then they came, accompanied by short outbursts and wails as I ever gently worked her hair into two buns. Her tears made me feel bad. A dance recital isn’t a necessity in life, and yet I was putting her through this hair torture – for what? But to counter that thought, you can argue that nothing is necessary, and damn it, if my kids start something and reach a certain point they are going to follow it through. Tears or no tears.

I remained calm and composed in my role as hair dresser, though coursing below the surface was a long-standing annoyance over the responsibility and the difficulty of doing Elyse’s hair; the lengths I go not to upset her, the inevitability of her upheaval. On top of it all, I don’t particularly enjoy doing hair.

Ariel wanted to be in the room to watch Elyse get her hair and makeup done. Had it been me in her shoes, I would have bailed when Elyse started crying, but Ariel insisted on being in the tiny bathroom with us, and she was the one who comforted her sister better than I could with comments like “Your hair is going to look so pretty, Elyse!” and “You’re watching Teen Titans! Is that your favourite show?” Standing there, hairspray can in hand, I was amazed by how much Ariel had inside of her to give. She had more of herself to give than I did, of that I felt sure, and in that same moment, I lived an experience I have been writing about and talking about for years; that through her tears, Elyse was also giving all she had to give. She was at her max and that was it, there was no more. Expressing her frustrations about getting her hair done through her tears was all she had to give. I was giving all I had to give too, but I could do better. I could do better and be better by realizing that my child was doing the best she can, and that each of us only has so much to give. Myself included. I could be better by realizing that accepting the people you love for who they are, and for what they have to give, is what unconditional love is all about.

I realized I was setting myself up to fail by expecting that Elyse should behave the way I want her to, the way society would dictate, instead of just accepting her for who she is. Nobody willingly wants to disappoint their loved ones through their behaviour. She is communicating in the only way she knows how. And with that idea came the thought and true understanding of she is doing the best she can. I am too focused on do it my waythe right way – as the only way, when of course that is not true. Elyse, all my children, show me regularly that there is more than one way of doing things. I would be wise to pay attention.

While Ariel pointed the way through her shining example of unconditional love, it was Elyse who forced me to come around the hard way, who reached for that most sequestered place of my heart and called it forth by saying, here, even when it’s hard, this is what it means to love me.

Be Kind, or else

I’m going to write a blog about kindness on a day when I’m not feeling particularly kind. I’m not feeling particularly unkind, just kind of blah. You know when you have to face down something difficult? It can be like standing at the top of a roaring waterfall with no way to fight back against the current. The jump is inevitable, you have to do it. It’s a long ways down, a far distance to go before the splash and the security of knowing you will resurface. I woke up with the water rushing all around me, sloshing in my head and ears, dragging me to the crest of the descent. I went over belly-up, kicking and screaming – or at least that’s how it felt getting going this morning. The cascade wasn’t pretty. Anyone who has kids and sees March break coming knows what I’m talking about.

So let me get to the point. Because we’re here for only a short while, and we’re going to talk about kindness today, dammit. Spoiler alert: I will touch on the ending of R.J. Palcio’s book Wonder (if you haven’t read it, and don’t want me to ruin the ending, this is your cue to leave…wait, come back! It’s not in a blogger’s best interest to tell their readers to leave. Just skip over the next two paragraphs, and quit whining about it already. Forget that. Be kind. No name-calling.)

The book Wonder, which I would argue is written for children and parents alike, is the story of Auggie Pullman, an intelligent boy with severe facial deformities and medical concerns who is about to attend middle school for the first time. The issues of acceptance and kindness are central to the book. At the end-of-year graduation ceremony, the school principal reminds his students in a speech, “Courage, Kindness, Friendship, Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.”

He goes on to remark:
“Greatness lies not in being strong, but in the right using of strength…He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts…He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own.” The principal is of course referring to the boy who showed true strength and courage throughout the entire school year, just by showing up, in the face of ignorance.

He is the greatest whose strength carries up the most hearts by the attraction of his own. Wow, that’s powerful. And to me, that evokes kindness, compassion, empathy.
This way of being reminds me of a great philosopher, visionary, and disability-rights activist, Jean Vanier, who writes, “theirs is not a life centered on the mind. So it is that the people with intellectual disabilities led me from a serious world into a world of celebration, presence, and laughter: the world of the heart.” He describes the relationship between the one who is healed and the one who is healing as constantly changing places. Everyone has something to offer, and we all have times of need. In his book Becoming Human, Vanier writes about our fears of those who are different from us, “…because we are not clear about what it means to be human…we have disregarded the heart.”

Kindness, or at least the form of kindness where we must appear vulnerable in front of the cool kids to do the right thing, isn’t a weakness then, it’s a strength. A strength of the heart. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable by showcasing and accepting our strengths, as well as our weaknesses, is what makes us human.

I love the tie in with disability, because having a disability or being viewed as disabled is so commonly perceived as a weakness in our society. But we must also accept and acknowledge that it is a strength. Differences can be perceived as weaknesses or they can be perceived as strengths. No matter how you spin it, it’s important to point out that what we perceive, or society perceives, as our greatest weakness can in fact be our greatest strength.

I’m getting derailed here. I’m supposed to be talking about kindness, and I’m talking a whole lot about strength. I guess that’s because what I’m getting at is that kindness, and our great capacity for compassion and to feel empathy for another, is a huge strength, maybe the greatest one we have.

Kindness is contagious, and it helps us to build connections. I experienced this when I responded in kind to the caring words that came my way when I started my new blog. I felt compelled to reach out to another writer and compliment their writing. The compliment was genuine, but the feelings of kindness that had first been directed toward me helped draw it out.

Kindness is hard-wired in our DNA and essential to our humanity (even if it’s hard to admit it when you’re having a grumpy day), but you still have to choose to be kind. “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” Another quotation in Wonder, this one from Dr. Wayne Dyer.

And if you’re going to choose kind, that kindness has to start with being kind to oneself. For me, that kindness looks like not berating myself for reading a book when I should be writing, or taking too long to start writing, or producing writing that isn’t good enough (the theme of this morning is writing challenges). In truth, I panicked slightly once I realized the kids were all out of the house, and so I better get to work NOW, TIME is running out! But where to focus, I have no idea WHAT I’M DOING (though I have lots of things to do), until I took a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. I walked the dog. I made myself two fried eggs and a piece of cinnamon honey toast so that my belly felt warm and full. I drank my tea. Then I patted myself gently on the back, and said, “it’s okay, take your time. You’ll come around.” I read a book, Heroes in My Head by Judy Rebick, for half an hour. Finally, without judgement, I sat down and I wrote a blog. The blog in front of you. Part of me is still kicking and screaming into the mist, stuck in that downwards flow, but mostly I’m one with my surroundings now. One with the beauty of nature around me. With kindness: that’s where it all starts.

In the Face of Failure

I have a lot of good things going for me right now: a new website and blog I’m proud of, speaking engagements, a finished manuscript ready for publication, national conference presenter, a roof over my head, and a husband, family and friends who love me.

Maybe I need to remind myself of these great things in the face of failure, in the full throes and embodiment of it.
At exactly 7:28 p.m., on the last day of February, I looked on from my folding chair in the spectator aisle as my daughter and her friend high-fived their Taekwondo teacher, Master K. From the corner of my vision, I saw my phone light up in my purse. I reached for it casually, picking it up and scanning the notification. As the girls got their boots on, and kids shuffled past me in a flurry of frenetic activity, I hung on to hope, and immediately opened the email that had arrived. The email I’ve been waiting months to receive.

UBC sent me the following message:

“Dear Respected Applicant,
We regret to inform you…” my heart stopped there. I slouched down in my chair, and re-read the message. I didn’t get in to the Master’s program I so desired.
“…almost 300 applications. The caliber of the work was high, the rankings were very competitive, faculty had to make some difficult decisions.”
Wrap it in a bow, make it look pretty, then sugar coat it any way you want. I didn’t get in. My heart was set on it, and it didn’t happen.

What about the people who wrote letters for me? MG Vassanji, a highly respected, award-winning author; my sister-in-law, a creative writing professor in charge of Master’s admissions in her own right; my good friend, a college prof and successful copywriter – have I let them all down?
And why? Why didn’t I get in? Is it because the competition was stiff? Because I used a relative as a reference? Because I haven’t yet published in a serious journal or won any awards? Because I submitted my first earnest attempts at fiction alongside my polished non-fiction excerpts, or they didn’t like my thesis project, or I didn’t explain myself well? Because my writing’s not good enough? Because I’m not good enough? I don’t believe in that last one. And you shouldn’t ever either.

There are a host of other reasons why I may not have gotten in. Maybe I put my name in the wrong box, or out of order.
To this day, I have my suspicions I didn’t get early acceptance into the teacher’s college consecutive education program after high school on the basis that I mixed up my first and last names in the boxes. What is your surname versus your given name? Oops. I couldn’t follow the instructions, and so they never even looked at the rest of my application. Or so I’ve imagined. But you know what? We’ll never know. And I’ll never know why I didn’t get into UBC’s program this time, either. And you know what else? It doesn’t matter.

At the risk of sounding grandiose and self-important, I trust there will be other great things coming my way, that the universe has a plan for me, and a way of working itself out.
If I had gotten into that consecutive education program out of high school, I would have never gone to Western, and never met my future husband, the love of my life, and experienced all that followed.

You know what else? After my failure to get early acceptance into teacher’s college, I dedicated the rest of my university years to making sure I would get in the next time. I worked even harder to that end. And guess what? That hard work paid off. I applied to six teacher’s colleges, including driving all the way from London to Ottawa with a friend to take a French competency test as part of one application. Then, during that highly competitive double cohort year, I got in. I got accepted into every single one.
When the timing is right, and if it’s what I’m truly meant to be doing with my life, I’m confident I will get into a Master’s of Fine Arts program, too. The same can be said for publishing my first book, winning a contest or receiving some form of recognition as a writer.

As we drove home, I asked the two seven-year-olds in the car what you should do if you fail. They both pipped up, “Try again! You have to keep going! Never give up! That’s called perseverance.” I told them they were wise beyond their years. They didn’t understand what that meant, but that’s beside the point.
The point is, I don’t pretend to understand the mysteries of the universe, but I have faith and I will persist. Hell, you can bet I’m going to work even harder now, and whether I eventually get in or not, it will have been worth it.

Perhaps it’s foolish to announce my failure to be accepted into a prestigious writing program at the moment I’ve officially declared myself as a writer to the world. Or maybe, just maybe, it makes me human.