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.

What We’re Made Of

Free advice: if and when you plan a trip around the world, don’t leave the final details until the week before you leave. There are best laid plans and then there is reality. The reality is you might not have time to apply to that publisher you were hoping to apply to; you definitely won’t write that piece for the magazine and you will more than likely have to put all of your writerly activities on hold. You will bow down to the demands of the schedule. Finalizing the itinerary will become all you know, the intense focus on your existence; the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thought jettisoning through your mind before bed. Sleep will be fitful. Exercise will be cut short. Your children’s questions will go unanswered, and they will repeat them ad nauseum until they grow tired and weepy and wander away, mewing like kittens who’ve lost their mother. You won’t really be gone, but you’ll be transformed from a living, breathing person, to a research troll. Your obsession with controlling the trip – before the trip controls you – will be all-consuming in the final days before your flight; it has to. You want to bitch and moan about all the work you have left to do, but hell, who would listen? I wouldn’t listen to me. And who am I kidding? A bit of sweat and tears, the burning sensation in the back of my eyeballs from too much screen time, is a fair exchange for the trip of a lifetime.

What do you mean, trip of a lifetime? You might ask. Where are you going? There are the physical locations themselves, but a trip, a real voyage, is so much more than that. The girls’ music teacher said to me, “you’re going to shed some skins on this trip,” and I told her I liked that, I liked that a lot; that she nailed where we are going right on the head. Traveling is about unravelling other versions of yourself; peeling back, delayering the proverbial skins. Let’s see what we’re really made of.

I’ll give you an example. Surfing. Let’s take surfing as an example. Canadian Adelle, the person typing this post in her usual local café wouldn’t consider surfing as a family activity that her particular family could enjoy. Dan and I knew WE, the adults, wanted to go surfing while in Hawaii, and we included Ariel in that realm of possibility, being the capable, swimmable, eight-year-old that she is. We wrote the other two off…we’d have to do something with them. But travel Adelle, the woman looking ahead, reaches out to her future self and sees that all is possible. She scours websites for information and sees the surfing company, the one with the cool name, North Shore Surf Girls, and the possibility of surfing for children as young as two. As young as two. She writes to said surf establishment in Hawaii and she inquires…are you sure? I have a three-year-old and a six-year-old who can’t swim and my six-year-old has Down syndrome…are you sure? She wakes up to the chipper reply. Yes! But what sealed the deal was the closing line in the email response, “I think it will be super fun.” Super fun? Can I get a HELL, yes! She’s speaking your language.

Suddenly new horizons open up. The impossible becomes…likely. Normal. Travel can broaden that which we didn’t even know was narrowed; can unearth truths buried deep below. I want to hold my children back, but the world calls them forward with open arms, out into un-surfed territory. The pre-planning is about keeping them as safe, comfortable and well fed as possible, to make our trip as enjoyable as possible, but there is so much impossible that becomes possible in the course of a day in another country that maybe it’s best just to let go. Just let go.

Maybe that’s another great reason to travel. To just let everything go. Step outside the relative safety of the everyday, the worn path and to look around the corner, check out what’s over there. I’m one to explore new paths, hike my way through a new forest, perhaps not always in the safest of ways. I’ve read atrocious stories of women walking alone in the woods and the bad things that happen to them or almost happened to them. Little Red Riding Hood for starters, but memoirs, too. A distance runner hiking with her baby when a man with a mental health issue emerges and out of nowhere throws a boulder grazing her ear, narrowly missing her newborn baby’s head in the carrier. Stories of rape, homicide, murder and the occasional animal attack. I should probably carry bear spray when I walk alone, but not because of the bears.

I have read horror stories from travel on the road, too. Whole volumes of them. Travellers who’ve gotten hurt, lost, scared. Who’ve encountered murderers face-to-face and lived to write about it. I’ve read a memoir written by a woman whose fiancé died from a fatal box jellyfish sting in Thailand, as well as a woman who became paralyzed falling off the second story of a building in Thailand because of a loose railing. There are SO MANY factors out of our control to worry about. There are terrible things that happen in my neighbourhood, yours too, stories I try not to think about.

But do you know why I’m not afraid to travel? Why we can’t be afraid to travel? Because as much as bad things can and do happen, more often beautiful, transcendent moments occur out on the road. Moments of hilarity. Moments of solidarity and humanity. I’ve read these stories, too; mostly these are the stories I choose to focus on. There is kindness to experience that goes beyond words. There is nature to encounter that draws the breath away. There are places to explore and people to meet who will open the heart up wide and in exchange there will be pieces of your heart left behind, I am sure of it.

Travel because who can stay still for long? And my biggest because, is because travelling together is a guaranteed way to spend time as a family. Sure, we don’t need to go to Japan to do that, but wouldn’t it be fun? There is a big part of me who knows I am going because I can. Because today is the day. Now is the time to go. Not tomorrow. Not later. This year, right now. Okay, in five days. FIVE DAYS!!!

As if I needed any more reasons to get away, I am reading the British author A.L. Kennedy and her meditation (or is it a witty rant?) called On Writing about the daily act. Her writing packs a punch, but it was this line that spoke to me last night at Ariel’s TKD practice, “Oh, but inside, Dear Reader – the writer is in minds, under skins, on roads untravelled, and anywhere and everywhere and more.”

The writer is under skins, and this trip will nurture my inner writer, fill the well so to speak, in a hundred different ways. The writer in me is giddy AF to soak in the world’s offerings. I’m all eyes and ears. This skill that writers must hone, this paying attention, children do it naturally, so I don’t even have to tell you what my kids will get out of our trip. But my hope for them, if I had to peg one down, is the collective experiences from our travel will shape the rest of their lives and provide the map and compass that will help them find their place in the world. And even if we get lost, we will be lost together, and they will know they are loved indeterminably because time is a great gift of love. Time is all we have, and love is all we need (if that isn’t already a song lyric, it should be).

Travel because, beneath the layers of skin, we are connected to this whole big wide Earth; to the land and the people in it.

Travel for no other reason than to go, to take a look. It’s time. Let’s see what we’re made of.

Sharing My Bed

We share our beds with our lovers, of course, but also with our loves.

We lay there, our bodies overlapping and draped over one another like puppies. Tucked in my bed this way, my girls by my side keeping me warm, I begrudgingly get up to start my day. I can’t shake the morning chill seeping through the windows during these late summer days. I’d prefer to crawl back in with my litter. Never mind, adventure awaits.

Fall is creeping in as our family draws nearer to our departure. Like the birds, we are setting off, migrating to warmer climates.

We leave in thirty-five days; we will be gone for forty-five days. That is one thousand and eighty hours to fly, sleep, eat, roam, swim, hike and explore new countries. The math is staggering – how quickly the trip has arrived, how soon we depart, the sheer amount of time we will be gone – just astounding to me. And yet, I have planned it all. Do big events in life sneak up this way? Like they’re just another day – because they are – but at the same time, they’re not. Not at all. You blink, and it’s the day of your wedding. You blink again, and if you forget to be in the moment, the moment has passed you by. I try to stay awake. The immediacy and inevitability of our trip is almost as perplexing as the children sleeping in my bed. There is something unbelievable in making things happen.

Who let these children in? Well I did, of course. When Dan’s away, and half of our bed is empty, there’s always a child willing to fill the space. Elyse comes in during the wee hours of the morning, around four a.m., crawls in beside me, folds herself up and falls back asleep. She literally sleeps folded in half; her head tucked peacefully onto her lap.

At some point in the morning, I notice Elyse folded in half in her signature position but facing the foot of the bed with her head tucked underneath the sheet. Next, she slides sideways, wedging her little body between me and her big sister, legs pressed into her sister’s side, head weighing into the softness of my abdomen below the sharpness of my ribs. Normally, I can’t stand being touched when I’m trying to sleep, let alone laid on, but today I don’t mind. Elyse knows how to nestle herself in well and sleep pulls at me from every angle.

Next to me lays Ariel. She’s been having a rough patch with getting to sleep after we read the first Harry Potter book and then jumped into the second. Chamber of Secrets proved to be much too scary for her, as I suspected all along it might be based on my own recollection of reading the tale for a university Children’s Literature course, but Ariel wouldn’t let on until it was too late; she pressed me to continue reading, pushing the boundaries of her own fright too far until she was past return. Predictably, the nightmares arrived.

My girls seem to hold the imagery of books in their minds the way I do: the pictures come to life and feel quite real. Once you see an image (be it in your mind or elsewhere), you can’t un-see it, and the picture in Ariel’s head of he-who-cannot-be-named is haunting her dreams. She now readily admits Harry Potter is too scary for her, but she is also convinced the night terrors are caused by sleeping on the top bunk. When asked to elaborate on her fears, she explained that the curtains in her bedroom take on a form of their own in the dark that is not unlike a man who-cannot-be-named. Logic will not prevail; emotions are strong in that one. We won’t be reading Harry Potter again any time soon, but the damage is done.

Ariel’s first solution to the nightmare problem was to switch rooms and sleep with her baby sister. Penelope’s toddler bed having recently been removed and replaced with a queen-sized mattress coincided perfectly with her plan. I was immediately dismissive of the idea – dead-set against it – but the girls cajoled and eventually I caved, and that little adventure lasted all of three days. Unsurprisingly, both children’s sleep was getting disrupted.

Back in her own bed, I was able to convince Ariel that it wasn’t the physical bed or sleep space that was giving her nightmares, i.e. her top bunk or the curtains in her room, but the ideas in her head that needed to change.

“Try thinking of the fun you had with your friends today and focus only on things that make you happy.”

She humoured me with this idea for one night, then it was back to bed rebellion.

“Please mom, let me come sleep with you.” My response was resolute – no.

I tucked three bodies into their separate beds, and eventually, after standing sentinel in the hallway for a while, two children fell fast asleep. I climbed into my own bed and laid there reading Patti Callahan’s Becoming Mrs. Lewis. I know enough not to read scary stories. I expected to hear footsteps down a ladder and shortly thereafter I did. A familiar face hiding behind cropped wavy brown hair popped up in my doorway.

“Can I just sleep here, with you, for a minute?”

“Fine,” I eventually acquiesced. “One minute.”

A minute later I sent an obedient child back to her bed; Ariel’s head hung low. She drew out each step and dragged her feet reluctantly through the carpet.

I turned back to my book. Minutes passed. The clock showed half past nine. I could hear the crinkling of sheets, the tossing and turning, the not sleeping and other tell-tale signs of anxiety. I remembered crawling into bed with my own mom on nights my dad travelled for work. Oh, alright.

“Ariel. Ariel? You can come in here.” I called to her down the hall from my bedroom.

She was down the ladder and tucked in comfy under the sheets of my bed in two seconds flat, a broad grin stretched across her face. I continued to read, and eventually heard her breathing get slow and heavy, felt the weight of her body go slack beside me. She found her peace.

It wasn’t unusual when Elyse joined us early in the morning, but I was pleasantly surprised by how seamlessly she made a spot for herself. She pleated into the space between Ariel and I like a garment in a suitcase.

And that is how I found myself in the morning with two children in my bed and feeling a bit sorry for the third one left out of the pile. Not sorry enough to go wake her up, but sorry not to have every one of my loves tucked in tight beside me. Not to worry.

That is how I found myself ready for the day and dreaming of adventures to come, so soon, with all of my girls, our whole family by my side.

While waking up with two daughters in my bed is certainly not the norm, it was oddly comforting homey scene in juxtaposition to the foreign-ness of the sleeping arrangements to come. Unbelievably so, this trip is happening.

The In-Between

I’m walking to the library, laden with notebooks, my laptop, beverages in each hand (my morning Green Monster smoothie and a London Fog) when it hits me: a gust of cool wind blowing across my bare, short-clad, legs. A chill cuts through me. I’m wearing thong sandals and a neon orange halter top underneath a light-weight black long-sleeved tee that’s open at the back that I thankfully thought to throw overtop. I am dressed for summer, which today the weather has confirmed it is decidedly not – or rather, the summer I once knew is slipping away before my very eyes and bare knees.

Standing in our kitchen early this morning, three-year old Penelope, with her mop of curls, had a far-off look. “It’s time for school now, mommy?” She felt the unmistakable shift in the air, the characteristic and melancholic pull of the final two weeks of August closing off the season.

As if the cool breeze hitting my legs wasn’t enough of an invasion on summer, I crossed paths with a large yellow bus on my drive downtown. You know what that means. And yesterday, in our local café, I ran into two teachers prepping for back to school. I remember those days well; the equal sense of rising panic and elation, prepping for twenty-five new grade one students, still haunts me.

What hits home, personally, is that my summer training is complete. I participated in my second and final triathlon of the season last weekend and that’s it. Finito. No more lake swims to slot in, or forty kilometer bike rides (though I would like to get in more bike rides before we’re blanketed with snow), or back-to-back “brick” workouts of running and biking. I’m in the week after the race, forcing myself to be still, wind down, take a break and admittedly this is hard for me. What’s next? screams my insatiable ego. An ultra race? A half iron man? We’ll see.

Luckily, I’ve had something to fill the space, the gaping hole and sense of loss the end of summer brings, in the form of a round-the-world trip to look forward to. I’m losing my kids to school only to regain them for a second summer in October – and I can’t wait. Ariel and I look at websites together, clasping hands and jumping up and down giddily in anticipation. Of the three, she’s the most fully aware of the adventure that lies ahead. Interestingly, I think it will be the youngest two, who are developing their sense of time, who will be the most present.

A month ago, our travel agent sent us an itinerary for Japan through a reputable company that included hotel stays and some transportation (but not all) for an outrageous sum I refuse to even write here. I will say it was four times more than I was willing to pay. She wasn’t being cruel – Japan is expensive – but I knew I could plan our Japan segment much more wisely and cheaply by booking it myself. The trade-off was time.

Having put off the job for most of the summer, one day this week I finally got up at five in the morning and spent a solid five hours poring over Japanese accommodations. I continued my research for a few more hours the next day. This is my idea of rest after the race. From an affordable Airbnb in downtown Hiroshima and vending machine ramen to a lavish hotel with our own private onsen (hot air bath) overlooking Mount Fuji that includes our meals, we are going to get to experience it all. Our trip has been weighing on my mind and I can breathe now that I’ve got most of our Japan stays booked. Two more days – one in Kyoto, one in Osaka – left to arrange, then we’re off to Thailand and the unknown. I don’t ever want to become a travel agent, but planning your own trips and discovering new countries and cultures is hella-fun. And we haven’t even left home yet.

There are two weekends left in this Canadian summer, really only one to get back-to-school shopping done. I happen to be going to Montreal to visit a childhood friend and her new baby this weekend, so Dan is in charge of back-to-school shopping. He will be the one braving the crowds in the mall with the girls, picking out Velcro running shoes and pencil case supplies, water bottles and lunch containers, maybe a new outfit or two – and for that I am grateful. Both for myself – for not having to do it, and for my husband – for getting the chance to. Organizing the tiny details of our children’s lives is both a great privilege and a weight best evenly distributed. Truth be told, when it comes to shopping, Dan is probably better at that stuff than I am anyway. I usually do it because I’m the one who’s around, but he has a penchant for coordinating outfits I can only aspire to.

While letting summer go is hard, there is an excitement that accompanies back-to-school. The promise of reuniting with friends, new backpacks and shiny shoes, crisp duo-tangs; of kids emptying out of the house and regaining routines. The draining of leaves to reveal their true colours, raking said leaves, the shortening of days, apple picking and pumpkin carving, turkey eating. Fall isn’t half bad. Some, like my husband who continues to wear shorts late into November, might say it’s their favourite season. While the Purdham family is going to miss the tail end of fall – Ariel was surprised to learn we’d be in Japan for Halloween (where apparently they do celebrate) – for now we’re going to try and stay in the present moment, and appreciate this last bit of summer while it lasts.

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.

French River: Pools of Glass

I’m writing this in the car travelling home from French River, a cottage locale situated as far north as Manitoulin Island and almost as far north as Sudbury. On our way up North, Dan and I stopped in Orillia, the birth town of The Group of Seven artist Frank Carmichael. Closer to our final destination, The Lodge at Pine Cove, we stopped at the French River Trading Post, and I picked up a copy of David P. Silcox’s lovely illustrated text The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson. Through its pages, I learned artist Tom Thomson died tragically by drowning before The Group of Seven was officially formed, but the group insisted he was very much a part of the movement and so he’s remained. This famous Group of Canadian artists defined Canada to the rest of the world through their sketches and paintings portraying Canada “the North” with images of nature, both dense and desolate; landscapes now synonymous with this country. I have at least one thing in common with Frank Carmichael, the Orillia native I mentioned earlier, which I will get to shortly.

On our four and a half hour drive from Peterborough – where we dropped the girls – on our way to French River, we skirted around Georgian Bay, past the Muskokas and along paved highway that cut through pink granite, the rocky face of Ontario’s North, bedrock better known as the Canadian Shield.

“Under the Canadian Shield is where they bury nuclear waste,” Dan informed me at some point during our 4.5 hour long conversation. “They dig deep, way down. It’s one of the safest places to put it.” I hated to think of this beautiful landscape as a dumping ground, but props to Dan for keeping the interesting facts coming on our lengthy drive.

On our way home, we stopped in Parry Sound for a quick Subway bite. My first trip to the area was at twelve years old for a gymnastics competition. I was in awe of the rock lining our passageway and the notion of workers having to blast through it to build the roads. Later, at a friend’s cottage, I slid off rocky slopes into smooth dark waters, and fully appreciated the region’s beauty. There is nothing quite like Northern Ontario.

While the magnitude and scope of the rock is impressive, what I’ve truly fallen in love with are the waterways. The bodies of fresh water.

From the beach of our cottage resort we launched our kayaks and let the river current pull us down stream along the shore line. Not far into our paddle, we came across a tiny inlet, the water level so low we could barely gain access. Our oblong boats glided across a narrow channel of rocks laying just below the surface, when around the bend, the pond came into view.

The pond was a wide, full circle dotted with lily pads and white flowers and lined by an audience of pines like spectators in an arena. As an island of rock blocked off the pond, separating it from the main flowing river, we found ourselves in a quiet, perfectly still sphere, save for the one startled fish who made a jump for it upon our arrival. Dan and I intuitively set down our paddles and floated together in silence, taking in the beauty around us. The pond was smooth as glass, and though I could spot the bottom if I tried, it was the surface reflecting the blue sky and onlooker trees like a mirror that caught my eye. With the sky above and the sky below me, was I in heaven? Yes.

This is where my sights and those of Frank Carmicheal aligned, our imaginations similarly captivated. Before I had a chance to properly read through The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson book I picked up, I titled this post Pools of Glass after the lasting impression of the pond lingering in my mind’s eye. Only later, in leafing through the pages, did I come across Carmichael’s famous painting, Mirror Lake, 1929 that exactly explores the quality of the water I so admired. Mirror Lake is a real place in the Muskokas, but the title of the painting was about more than a place. Carmichael and I each took notice of the northern water as glass reflecting the landscape like a mirror.

Frank Carmichael Mirror Lake 1929

I don’t know if Carmichael felt the same way, but it wasn’t enough for me to look at the water, I needed to experience it.

In the mornings, I set out for my swims. I sliced through the deeper water off the dock, one, two, three, breathe right; one, two, three, breathe left. Swimming in fresh water is an act of meditation.

Dan kindly paced alongside me in his kayak, my protector from potential boats coming through. And snakes. I was weary of water snakes, though I shouldn’t have been.

Before we left on our trip, Dan’s sister lovingly sent us a picture of a three-foot long water snake her friend had just caught in French River. I asked the owner of the Lodge about water snakes upon our arrival, and he just shrugged with a laugh, “No, no. The snakes are my friends.” I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by that, but I took it as a sign not to be worried. I saw one cute baby snake scurry out of my path while hiking in the woods, but beyond that, nothing but plump loons and the occasional jumping fish in the water, in addition to a few toads and a muskrat while kayaking.

“The dogs on the property help to keep the black bears away,” the owner also informed Dan. Black bears. Who said anything about black bears?

During our stay in French River, our girls’ piano teacher happened to be visiting family in French River as well. She posted on Facebook about a close encounter with a water snake. I’m not crazy about the idea of encountering a snake in the water, but I can tell you last summer when we spent a week in the Bruce Peninsula region of Tobermory, with its crystal clear, frigid turquoise waters, the first thing I did at our cottage was swim across a small cove of water over to a large rock. I climbed up onto that rock, triumphant, saw a large snake, and immediately got back in the water and crossed the cove back to shore. As it turns out, that rock was the snake’s home and we later saw him zig-zagging through the water. Ariel and a friend were the first ones to spot him in the cove, while I was coming back in from a swim out into the depths of Lake Huron. The snake and I crossed paths, but he went the other way. That snake wanted nothing to do with me (the feeling was and is mutual). My point being: I’ve already experienced my first water snake, you’d think I’d be over it.

The first time Dan and I got in the water together at French River, he swam up behind me and playfully grabbed my toes (not funny). I reminded him that snakes usually swim on top of the water, they glide their bellies across it half immersed. Or so I thought. I later found this on the Ontario Nature site, “The northern watersnake eats fish and amphibians, hunting for its prey along the water’s edge or underwater. It is an excellent swimmer and can be found up to three metres below the surface of the water and several kilometres from shore.” Huh.

The idea of snakes gliding across the water’s surface grossed Dan out, as he had imagined the snakes resting at the bottom of the dark murky river, far down below in the fathoms we can’t see, which I think is infinitely worse. In general, I recommend not worrying about snakes when you’re swimming down a river. They’re certainly not worrying about you.

I wish I could pack a northern lake into my back pocket and take it home with me, snakes and all, but alas, I’m but a mere mortal, stranded and surrounded by dry ground. If I could swim in a lake every day, I would. Maybe one day I will.

I hope I come back as a water snake. I can see myself now, gliding serenely through pools of glass.