Friday, July 29, 2011

#48/100... Learn to sing your favourite songs

Everyone can sing, especially with a bit of practice and the opportunity. Unfortunately, too many people have been told (incorrectly) that they can't carry a tune in a bucket by insensitive family members, friends or teachers. But given the right opportunity, those naysayers can be proven wrong! A friend of mine and her family joined a choir for non-singers, called A Joyful Noise. And you should hear all those non-singers. I attended a Christmas concert a couple of years ago where their version of Santa Lucia brought me to tears, it was that gorgeous! (I'm something of a music snob, so I'd tell you the truth if I had been losing dental enamel that evening.)

So, if everyone can sing, anyone can learn to sing their favourite song, except perhaps if it's a high-note Puccini aria in original Italian, and even then, with enough motivation and a score transposed to a lower key, it's probably doable. Fortunately, most of us favour reasonably singable songs, with good rhythm and solid lyrics, and even if we are unable to carry the melody on our own, what's important is the pleasure we get out of singing. It's a simple way to entertain ourselves, doesn't cost a thing to us or the planet, and if friends join in, it's even better!

There are also health benefits to making music with our God-given instrument, the human voice. A little vocalizing just for the fun of it can improve posture, release stress-reducing endorphins, open our respiratory passages, and improve our lung capacity by toning up our chest muscles and diaphragm. Singing can even boost our immune system as it increases our feelings of well-being and enhances our mood. I love to hear people singing when they think no one is listening. Even just catching sight of someone singing their heart out in their car on their way to work makes my day. So with all these positive impacts from a simple activity, why not use our vocal chords to lift up our hearts?

These days, eldest daughter sings numbers from the musical, Chess, middle daughter has Harry Potter themes going on, and youngest girl hums a Taylor Swift tune if I'm not mistaken. My favourite piece at the moment is one that I have yet to sit down and figure out on my guitar, though I can sing snatches of lyrics. My plan this summer is to learn it outright because I love it so much. I've posted it before, but I'll post it again so you can sing along if you like.

Sometimes I feel like a walking song catalogue. You know -- somebody says something, and a lyric pops into my head that follows their theme. If you're like that, too, I'm going to throw out a challenge for you. I'll toss out ten lines of lyrics, and see if you can give me the next line, or the title of the song it comes from. (Sorry, my sisters, this will be too easy for you!) And if you want to send me a line from your favourite song, maybe I'll add it to the bottom... and we'll all be singing to ourselves for the rest of the day.

1. And we're wondering when we'll be free...
2. For some reason I can't explain...
3. There's a land that I've heard of...
4. And when you're walking that walk it's good for your soul...
5. And I feel that when I'm with you, it's alright...
6. He's talking to Davey who's still in the navy...
7. Ain't got no cigarettes...
8. The lights are on but you're not home...
9. I've come to talk with you again...
10. Well it's a long way up and we won't come down tonight...

If you can figure all of these out, you're either my missing twin or a soulmate I haven't recognized up until now... hee hee! Happy singing!

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The man who planted trees

Here is one of my favourite stories as I remember seeing it after a movie ended early one night and the station decided to fill some time with this animated short. Its message is even more important today. Sometimes nature needs a helping hand, and a little perseverance goes a long way. We can all do small but important things like Elzeard Bouffier, whether he was real or not.

Thanks to my sister Jeanine for reminding me of this one. Please, if you can, watch both parts. The animation is really beautiful, as is the story.


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

#47 of 100 Simple Suggestions... Avoid air travel

Honestly, this suggestion is a tough one to discuss, because somehow, in the last 30 years or so, North Americans have accepted the idea of air travel as something essential to a happy life. It's gotten to the point where it's almost abnormal to have a vacation without taking a plane somewhere. To suggest that people give up flying is like choosing to hang out with the least popular kids at school. It's just not a fun thing to do.

Of course, I haven't worried a lot about popularity since I left school, so here goes: Next to taking the Space Shuttle, flying is the least efficient method of travel with the greatest ecological impact. Getting those great iron birds into the air requires more carbon emissions than we should be willing to spend on a planet that's experiencing global climate instabilities all over the place. I'm sure you know to what I'm referring, but allow me one example: half of the town of Slave Lake, Alberta, burned to the ground because of dry conditions two months ago, and as I'm writing this, they're experiencing flooding. Bizarre.

It's because of things like this that frivolous air travel to exotic locations just for experience's sake needs to become as unusual and rare as it was a generation or two ago. Did you know that trains can move more people greater distances with the lowest environmental impact except for bicycles? More sustainable forms of transportation need to be developed, but until they are, simpler forms of mass-transit type travel from years past -- those train and bus systems that move more people with fewer fossil fuels expended -- really ought to be revisited and made more viable than air travel.

Of course, I have to admit to frivolous air travel a few times in my life -- before we started hearing about climate catastrophes and global climate instability, and before I learned about Voluntary Simplicity. Since then, I've given up on the idea of vacationing on a tropical island because I can't contribute any further to the decimation of the environment due to melting glaciers and polar icecaps, warming, dying oceans and wars over oil in the Middle East. Tropical vacations are unsustainable if we think like wise Sioux chieftains and remember that our actions affect the next seven generations. Do I really need to lie on a beach mid-winter? Not if it's contributing to the decline of this beautiful world.

I know a lot of people don't think this way, but I can't help it. And I do believe I can be just as happy with a week at a lake in our tent trailer as I would be at an all-inclusive Mexican resort, where locals have to make my bed every day, and go home to families who don't have the kind of medicare mine does. Part of avoiding air travel may also have to do with living in solidarity with the poor who never travel further than 50 km from their birthplace. There are those who argue that the developing world's travel destinations need tourism for their very existence, but is that really the case? If so, why can't we find ways to share wealth equitably so that everyone can live the way we do in North America? Ah... because if everyone lived like we do, global climate instabilities would wipe us off the planet.

I digress. Two summers ago, we took our family trip of a lifetime across our own beautiful country... by train. It was slow, relaxing and absolutely wonderful to travel from Edmonton all the way to Ottawa for Canada Day, and beyond to see friends and relatives in Nova Scotia. Running out of time at the end of our trip, we flew home. Not a happy experience for three out of five of us, who were pretty queasy in turbulence.

Just to be clear: I'm not moodling that people should never fly. Too many of us have family and friends that are overseas. If that's the case, and you're spending lovemiles to see someone special rather than airmiles to get a winter tan, you have my blessing.

And I'm not saying that everyone has to think the way I do about air travel. But give me a choice, I'll avoid air travel as much as possible because I value our beautiful world and want to leave it in the best shape possible for the next seven generations, which include my own girls.

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Simple Suggestion #46 of 100... Store memories, not souvenirs

It's vacation season... and who can resist a souvenir shop? We will be heading to Seattle, and I'm sure there will be stuff we've never seen in the little stores there. Fortunately, I have no ambition to load up on kitsch, as I see many lifetimes' worth as I unpack bags of donations at the Clothing Room of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. T-shirts from every destination under the sun (some never worn, retail tags intact), address books, wall plaques, postcards, pillows, tea towels, keychains, mugs, jewelery, windchimes... and on the list goes. Most of it isn't terribly useful to our homeless folks, and I certainly don't need any of it cluttering up my home.

As some wise person said, "Take nothing but memories, and leave nothing but footprints."

So for our vacation, I'm taking a camera and my journal. I've done that all my life, and still love to reread memories and look at pictures from years past. If I get any particularly good ones this year, I might share them with you, too. Watch this space.

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Simple Suggestion #45... Write to politicians about issues important to you and your community

Okay, I admit it. I complain about politicians. Who doesn't? But honestly, if I'm living according to the tenets of Voluntary Simplicity, that means I'm eradicating those things that are excessive, frivolous and useless in my life, things that don't bring me joy and pleasure. Badmouthing our civil servants is one of those things. Honestly, I wouldn't want their jobs, and what is the use of complaining, anyway? To take pleasure in bellyaching is a poor use of energy when I could "be the change [I] want to see," as Ghandi put it so well.

So, since jumping on the Voluntary Simplicity bandwagon, I've tried to do things differently. Rather than complaining that my politicians are out of touch, I'm keeping in touch with them on issues of importance. After all, if they don't know what their constituents think, how are they supposed to do the right things?

Recently, our daughters' K-12 French Immersion School has been threatened with closure. At the beginning of June, a school meeting was held where people were invited to voice their concerns. My husband and I attended to express our opinions, but I couldn't just leave it at that. After a few days of thinking about the situation, I wrote a letter to school board members, superintendents and city councillors to voice my opposition to the idea of moving a successful program from the heart of the city to the distant suburbs. I received several interesting responses, and have since heard that a small committee of parents are actively working to keep our school in the public eye and off the chopping block. Things seem to be starting to turn around, one of the parents told me recently.

It's easy to be cynical and say that letter writing doesn't have any impact on political decisions, but if a letter isn't getting the right kind of response, how about a phone call? A visit to a politician's office? A group gathering of like-minded folks signing a petition and presenting it in person? There are ways to be heard; it just takes a bit of creativity sometimes.

Here I'll put in a little plug for It's an online community of activists who tackle world-wide issues through internet petitions. They've had some interesting successes. The most recent petition I signed was to Canada's Minister of the Environment, asking her to reconsider a mega-quarry proposal that would disrupt a farming community and threaten the headwaters of a few important rivers in Ontario. In my books, saving farmland is important! Avaaz sends out notices of its campaigns, allowing its subscribers to pick and choose they ones they want to be involved with. They also encourage other methods to connect with politicians so that the voice of the people is heard.

So, enough complaining. Who has heard your voice lately?

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Adventures in humility

A few weeks ago, I realized that I really could use a new swimsuit because my old tankini had gotten pretty stretched out over the last three years. One afternoon, eldest daughter and I braved a swimsuit shop together. Being a member of the very-small-bust department, I find bathing suit shopping rather humiliating, but I managed to find two pretty nice one-pieces that didn't have spaces that I couldn't fill. When I tried them on, I really liked the second, a pinky-purple one with black designs, a refreshing change after years of blue bathing suits. I happily took it to the cashier.

"Ah, this is pretty," she said, and I agreed. Looking at me a little more closely, she said, "and how did it fit for you?"

"Really well," I said. "It looked quite nice."

"You do realize that it's a mastectomy suit."

Ouch... "No, I didn't," I said, reconsidering for a moment as my ego deflated, then kicking myself for allowing it. I bought the suit. It gives me pause to think about how silly it is to complain about having a flat chest when I lost my friend Therese to a breast cancer recurrence and another friend is presently going through chemo. And honestly, it's the nicest suit I've had in years.

A few days later, middle daughter and I went shopping together, and another cashier offered me another piece of humble pie. "If you show me some I.D., I can probably give you your senior's discount."

Oof! "Thanks," I said, "but it's too early for that... I just have the hair of a senior citizen," I said, pointing to my natural grey and noting that her hair looked like it had been recently coloured.

"I'm sorry," she said, turning red. "Your face really is quite young."

"Thank you," I said, smiling and shaking my head. I guess I'm getting used to having people who don't know me either thinking I'm older than I am, or trying to convince me I should colour my hair. It happened again yesterday, when we went looking for some curl enhancer for my girl. I asked the sales lady if there was something more organic and less chemically derived, and she assumed I was looking for colour in a box.

After those three episodes (for me, things come in threes), you can see another reason why I dislike shopping! But I am actually a serious seeker of humility, just not from sales clerks! I prefer learning about humility with my spiritual director, whom I saw last week. After we'd chatted a while about my worries and struggles, he said, "Well, Maria, when I remember that I'll probably never have everything figured out and that I certainly don't know what's best all the time, that gives me permission to put away my pride and pay attention to what God might be telling me."

I like that last lesson the best.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

#44... Reduce or eliminate cosmetics

Wikipedia says this about cosmetics:
Cosmetics are substances used to enhance the appearance or odor of the human body... A subset of cosmetics is called "make-up," which refers primarily to colored products intended to alter the user’s appearance.... The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates cosmetics in the United States[3] defines cosmetics as: "intended to be applied to the human body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance without affecting the body's structure or functions."  
And I have to wonder, why all that fuss? Why are we so worried about our appearance? What's wrong with having an imperfect human body? If we get some pleasure out of applying a bit of lipstick once in a while, that's one thing, but if we're obsessing about having eyes that make everyone else jealous, that's another. Especially since a lot of the chemicals in our cosmetics are highly questionable when it comes to not "affecting the body's structure or functions."

Lately, there have been more than a few news items about personal care/cosmetic products and their potential health risks as well as the lack of attention that has been paid to their ingredients, some of which can possess low levels of toxicity that no one bothers to think about. Remember the Brazilian Blow Out? It had fairly high levels of toxins, if I'm not mistaken...

As someone who subscribes to the David Suzuki Foundation's emails, I received a request to participate in a personal care survey a few months ago. So I rounded up a few products from our cupboards, and sat at the computer checking the survey boxes that correlated to the ingredient lists on my bottles. I was somewhat appalled when I realized that each product had one or more questionable ingredients listed.

After compiling the information offered by survey participants, the Suzuki Foundation came up with its Dirty Dozen list of toxic ingredients in personal care products. It also advised that we contact our Minister of Health and other politicians who have the power to get cosmetic corporations to publish the not so pretty details about some of their products. So I did. Haven't heard a word back, unfortunately.

There are those who dismiss the concerns about cosmetic ingredients as just so much scare-mongering, but my philosophy is this: if I'm not 100% sure it's good for me, why bother using it? So I have wrinkles, lumps, and the odd acne outbreak. I've given up on supermodel glossy hair and my husband has a perfume allergy. Living simply, I don't need to fuss about any of it, because when I get to those pearly gates, St. Peter won't be questioning me on whether I remembered my daily moisturizer. It's okay to live without buying into the world of cosmetics, really! As Kermit the Frog sings at the end of his famous solo about being green (with a slight adaptation):
I'm me,
and it'll do fine,
I'm beautiful,
and I'm what I want to be.

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Today marks twenty years since Lee and I said "I do." All I can say is that it's been a fantabulous time, and I wish everyone a lifetime relationship/friendship as much fun as ours has been!

Here's to another twenty, my love!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Simple Suggestion #43... Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is...
taking time to appreciate...
savouring each and every mouthful...
opening my eyes and mind to really see...
being aware of brothers and sisters near and far away...
inhaling deeply of the sweet fragrances and pungent aromas of life...
hearing God in silence, music, the words of a friend, the spaces between the words...
feeling the warmth, coolness, hardness, softness, roughness, smoothness,
sharpness, weightiness, and significance
of everything
with which I'm blessed.

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Monday, July 18, 2011

#42 of 100... Use recycled paper products

This one's a no-brainer, right? Sources for paper, paper towels, serviettes, and toilet and facial tissue  shouldn't come from trees in a world swimming in paper waste. Products made from recycled paper are improving all the time. When we first started using recycled toilet paper, it reminded me of my curmudgeon uncle's joke from our summer of camping with him. Uncle Scotty said, "Campground toilet paper is like John Wayne. Tough and mean, and don't take the **** off of no one."  I would like to point out that since the early days of recycled paper products, toilet paper has gotten almost soft! But I still haven't found a recycled facial tissue that doesn't make my daughter's allergy sensitive nose all red and raw. So I confess that we still buy non-recycled soft tissues.

Of course, it never hurts to have a serious look at how we are using or abusing the world's paper supply. Do we really need paper towels if I have a rag bin in my broom closet? Could we use cloth napkins instead of paper serviettes? And how about recycling our own paper? One sided copies of things brought home from school and work can get chopped into four pieces -- the perfect size for grocery lists, notes to my kids, or telephone messages. Auto-reply envelopes from magazine subscriptions and charities work well for sending school field trip monies back to school -- just scratch off the old address and scrawl the envelope's true purpose on the back. Christmassy newspaper flyers are my family's wrapping paper of choice during the festive season, if we can't use gift bags from years gone by. My aunties are particularly excellent at paper recycling -- I love to get letters and notes from them because quite often the cards are made of bits and pieces of cards they've recycled or pictures they've taken. But the queen of paper reuse has to be my daughters' playschool teacher. Mary Lou had all the playschool parents saving the tissues wrapped around mandarin oranges, and used them to stuff a special art project later in the year. And she had more creative uses for old newspapers than I can catalogue here!

I'm sure you can leave comments about a dozen other ways to save trees. So, let's help the earth's forest lungs as much as we can...

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Words from a wise man

What sort of society do we want? There are, for me, a few principles. A society that encourages us to break open the shell of selfishness and self-centredness contains the seeds of a society where people are honest, truthful, and loving. A society can function well only if those within are concerned, not only with their own needs or the needs of those who immediately surround them, but by the needs of all, that is to say, by the common good and the family of nations. Each one of us, I believe, is on a journey towards this openness where we risk to love.
Growth toward openness means dialogue, trusting in others, listening to them, particularly to those who say things we don't like to hear, speaking together about our mutual needs and how we might grow to new things. The birth of a good society comes when people start to trust each other, to share with each other, and to feel concerned for each other.
Jean Vanier, Becoming Human, p. 34

If you've never heard of Jean Vanier or read anything about him, I'd highly recommend putting him on your reading list. These days I have Carol Whitney-Brown's Jean Vanier: Essential Writings (2008, Novalis. ISBN 978-2-89646-080-9) with me, and I'm eating it up, nodding in agreement with every page. Jean Vanier is in his eighties, an amazing humanitarian and an excellent writer/philosopher. A friend of mine is on retreat with him in Trosly, France at the moment, and if I wasn't so happy for her, I'd be jealous.

Jean Vanier's writings call us all to be more caring in all the corners of our lives. Reading him, and putting his words into action, we can't go wrong. I'll leave you with another tidbit to whet your appetite:
What meaning can be found in life in the modern world? So many people today are searching, so many seem lost and no longer have any kind of ethical reference points; so many are dissatisfied with a purely materialistic life, with ephemeral pleasures or with a quest for power and success.

Through my experiences both before and in L'Arche I have discovered the importance of two essential elements in human life that can give it meaning both for people of goodwill who have no religion, and for people who are searching for God, whatever their religion: being, and being open, having a clear identity and being open to others. We establish an identity through the place where we live, our family, culture, education and physical and psychological state. But we establish it too through our choice of profession, our gifts and abilities, our values and fundamental motivations in life, through friends, through the commitments we make and through searching for truth in ourselves and in life. Being open to others, especially to those who are different from ourselves, is to see them not as rivals and enemies but as brothers and sisters in humanity, capable of bringing light and truth into our lives, and of living in communion with us.

Openness does not imply weakness, nor a tolerance which ignores truth and justice. Being open does not mean adhering to others' ideologies. It means being truly sympathetic and welcoming to people, listening to them, and in particular to people who are weak or poor or oppressed, so as to live in communion with them.

Jean Vanier, Our Journey Home, p 145

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Simple Suggestion #41... Track your water usage

Water is an incredibly important commodity in our world, simply because we can't live without it. We've had just a few warm days this summer, and they have made me more aware of the importance of keeping hydrated. Hot weather (though we haven't seen much of it yet) also makes me think of all my brothers and sisters around the globe who have to walk for miles to get their daily ration of something that flows too freely in my sink. I know that I live in the country where water use is highest per capita, and that worries me a little when I hear dire predictions about water shortages due to global climate instability. Of course, with all the rain and recent flooding in Alberta, it's hard to believe in water shortages here.

Even so, we've been trying to cut down. Our family has been tracking our water usage for the last several years through graphing the cubic metres that are reported on our monthly bill in an effort to reduce our use, and we have made some important strides in lowering the graph line by making a few changes. Rather than watering a big green rectangle, what grass we have has to fend for itself, as most of our front lawn has been turned into perennial beds with plants that are drought tolerant. When our top load washing machine gave up the ghost, we installed a front load washer that uses an unbelievably small amount of water in comparison (my husband jokes that it's like beating damp rags against rocks, but it gets our clothes cleaner than the multi-litre top-loader ever did). We've installed low-flow taps, showerheads, and toilets, and a handy soap-up valve in our shower. I've also become more careful about letting the tap run. When the water is cold and I need hot, I fill my watering cans until I get the desired temperature for the sink, and water my houseplants. When a waterbottle isn't emptied at school, my plants get another drink.

These are small steps, but important ones. Feel free to leave your favourite water saving tips. The thing is, change begins with us, and with seven billion of us on the planet, it might not hurt to re-evaluate our relationship to the water that gives everything life.

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#40 of 100 Simple Suggestions... Use reusable shopping bags

Twenty-some years ago, I was promoting a show in Belgium, and one of the ways I did it was to go to the grocery mart and help customers pack their groceries and a small promotional flyer into cloth shopping bags. At the time, I remember thinking those reusable bags were a great idea.

It only took fifteen years for the idea to reach my home town, and for the past several years, I've been taking my own grocery bags with me whenever I shop. What I'm not so good at is remembering to take reusable bags with me when I'm not shopping for groceries. But this week, I vow to do that, as I have daughters who need running shoes, swim suits and shorts. I'm not a big fan of shopping, but avoiding the use of the plastic bags that are clogging our oceans and flying from our treetops makes me feel a little better about it.

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Simple Suggestion #39... Terminate subscriptions and memberships for which you don't have time

We used to get a lot of magazines... until one summer day, I cleaned up the magazine shelf and found a half dozen that I had never even seen. Then I had to ask myself -- if I didn't even notice or remember that they had arrived, why was I bothering with a subscription that only wasted lovely glossy paper, also known as trees and chemicals? True, I could have saved those issues for a time when I run out of reading material... but when would that day ever come? I was also receiving a half dozen e-newsletters that sat in my inbox until I deleted them, unread!

The problem is that there are just too many interests to pursue in this life, and not enough time. I'd love to keep up with Vegetarian Times, Organic Gardening, numerous writing magazines, and even just the weekend crossword puzzle. And then there are all the membership possibilities -- fitness classes, art or writing courses, and other activities that could keep a person running every night of the week. And those emails that never get read!

Getting over-committed, whether to what comes through the mail or online, or through signing up for courses and classes and conferences -- only adds a guilt-load to life. The false expectation that I should be able to do everything ends up sapping my energy to the point that I want to do nothing. Fortunately, that's usually when summer holidays kick in, and I'm reminded that life can be a lot more relaxed if I don't sign up for everything!

So when I cleared off the magazine shelf that summer day, I made the decision to let those magazine subscriptions lapse. I cut back on free inspirational emails for my inbox, decided that one or two activities would be my limit, and chose freedom over the guilt-load of subscriptions and memberships that I hadn't been juggling very well at all. I wish I could say that the guilt-load has vanished, but it hasn't quite, as the temptation of one more activity/membership/subscription always exists. No, it hasn't been perfectly smooth sailing, but then what's life without a few waves?

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Monday, July 11, 2011

#38... Take public transit

This Simple Suggestion fits right alongside #18, join a carpool. Why drive alone when we know that Single Occupant Vehicles are a huge waste of energy, that fossil fuel emissions are messing up our planet, and that our hurry-scurry world is sorely lacking a sense of community? Public transit use is just smart, especially when it comes to commuting.

Besides, buses, trolleys and trains are great for people watching. As a writer, I like to imagine the lives of the people with whom I ride. I appreciate the routine that develops when I ride at the same time every day -- the greeting of the driver, the murmur and shuffle of standing passengers, the comings and goings of different faces each stop mixed with the surprise of a stranger appearing now and then. I like to see who shouts thank you as they disembark (I do). It's always nice to run into someone I know, or to chat with a seatmate who invites conversation. And it's really nice to be worry free when it comes to finding a parking stall!

Public transit gets a lot of bad raps, but really, it's not a bad way to go as it teaches patience, it can be a social event... and it's definitely kinder to the planet. If if wasn't such a nice day today, rather than riding my bike to work, I'd take the bus!

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Boy in the Moon... and an amazing dream

These days I'm reading a wonderful book called The Boy in the Moon: A Father's Search for His Disabled Son by Ian Brown (2009, Random House of Canada, ISBN 978-0-307-35710-6). Ian, a feature writer for the Toronto Globe and Mail, tells the story of his son, Walker, who was born with a disability known as cardiofaciocutaneous syndrome (CFC). Ian is a gifted writer whose truthful, matter-of-fact prose borders on poetic even as he discusses how difficult it is to have a child who exists outside of what's considered normal, how hard it was to provide constant care, and how much anguish went with the decision to find a group home for Walker.

I haven't wanted to put the book down. Ian's writing is compelling, not just because I have an uncle and cousin who have disabilities, or because I've worked with people with disabilities at various intervals in my life and  now work with L'Arche, a community where people with and without disabilities live together in relationship. Ian shows the pain and beauty of his relationship with his son, and the joys and struggles that go with it. Reading about Walker has made me realize that I may have known a person with CFC in the first group home I worked in back in the early 80s. And Ian's comment about his wife and daughter dreaming of Walker talking like a trial lawyer sparked a most amazing dream for me, too...

I was at a large L'Arche banquet, with Lucy on one side of me, and Daria on the other. Lucy normally communicates with a series of moans, and Daria with a few repeated syllables, but at this banquet, the two of them were chatting and laughing non-stop about everything. My jaw dropped at their conversation, and everyone around me was laughing at my reaction, because they all knew Lucy and Daria could talk and I wasn't in on the secret. It was a wonderful, happy dream, because for once I didn't have to guess at what my two friends wanted to tell me! I woke up laughing.

What I really love about The Boy in the Moon is that it is written with the awareness that, even though we would like to live in a world where no one has to struggle with disability, people who are disabled have many gifts to offer. Ian Brown writes eloquently about the bitter-sweet joy Walker has brought into his life. I understand that, though only from a niece, cousin, and friend's point of view, not as a parent. I sometimes wonder what the disabled people in my life would be like without their disabilities, and wish that disabilities didn't happen. But Uncle Louis is a dear man, and Sarah is my favourite disabled cousin just as I'm her favourite "oldest cousin in Edmonton." Every time I go to work, Thomas fills me in on the whereabouts of all my colleagues and their cars. Darren's preoccupation with arranging the lunchroom chairs in perfect rows around the table makes me smile. Harry tells me garbled but assuredly humourous stories that make him laugh, which makes me laugh. Jane informs me when there are babies anywhere in the vicinity because she loves babies. Sandy wants to help with whatever I'm doing, but especially with shredding. All of them would be very different without disabilities, but all offer amazing gifts to those of us who know and love them.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

#37 of 100 Simple Suggestions... Reduce knick-knacks and unnecessary clutter

As a newly-wed, I was invited to a candle party. You know, like a Tupperware party, only pretty scented candles in all sorts of lovely glass and ceramic holders. In those days, I was crazy about candles and often had at least one burning.

Then I had children. When my eldest learned to crawl, the first thing she went for was the shelf where the pretty candles sat, and they soon found their way into a box which is still stored under the stairs. Life without candles soon became life without knick knack clutter. A lot of statuettes, souvenirs, and other gifts from well-meaning friends who felt they had to buy something to mark some occasion or other have been donated to charity sales after a suitable interval. Most of my friends and family know me well enough now that they don't buy me presents that have to be dusted or stored. Instead, I get consumables like chocolate or homemade preserves, or a ticket to a show, or a perennial for my garden, or useful things - like these pretty rubber boots my sisters gave me for my birthday last year.

Even with my youngest at the non-candle-breaking age of eleven, I can't bring myself to unpack those candles, mainly because I have come to prefer free space over clutter. Don't fence me in with stuff, and don't ask me to dust around fancy little knick knacks. There are a thousand things I'd rather do. So candles and candle holders remain under the stairs, and if I'm not mistaken, there's still one more box of knick knacks down there somewhere, too. Eventually I'll get around to giving them away. Any takers? Life is full enough without them.

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

#36 of 100 Simple Suggestions... Grow your own vegetables

Zucchini and scarlet runner beans...

the carrot patch...

parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme... with cilantro, savoury, oregano, basil, dill, and lemon balm...


garlic and crazy onions...



broad beans...

wax beans and snow peas...



and strawberries.

I guess you could call this my garden report for the first week of July, and an encouragement to anyone who has a little sunny spot and a bit of dirt -- even a pot on a balcony is a wonderful thing. (Community gardens and local produce from farmers markets are fabulous, too.) It takes a bit of effort, but nothing beats a hundred foot diet that's herbicide and pesticide free, everything fresh picked and tended with love. God willing, we'll have some hearty soups, stews, salsas, spaghetti sauces and salads in two months' time. Need I say more?

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Simple Suggestion #35... Say thank you often

Two little words in English. Merci in French. Gracias in Spanish, grazie in Italian, dankuwel in Flemish, bedankt in German... and perhaps my multilingual spelling is going off the rails, so I'll stop there. Maybe you know a few more.

If we want to live a happy, simple life, showing gratitude is one of the easiest things we can do. Those two little words go a long way to making life happier for us and the people with whom we live. I've lost track of the number of times that saying thank you to a store clerk brightened their demeanor, or when I thanked one of my girls for completing a small chore and she went an extra mile for me. Come to think of it, I'm a lot more likely to do more for someone else when they acknowledge the effort with a simple thank you.

And there are larger thanks to be given, too. When we really think about it, everything we have to enjoy is gift, given to us by hands much gentler than our own. Friendships often start through no real effort of ours, happiness arrives with a wisp of music or the chickadee in my lilac bush, and peace descends when I am able to slow down and listen to my own breathing. Even my ability to breathe is a gift.

No matter our belief system, saying thank you is necessary because it keeps us from taking everything for granted. Appreciation keeps us down-to-earth and helps us to value the enough that we already have. And if we practice Voluntary Simplicity by valuing what we have, we don't need to pursue more. As Lao-Tze said sometime in the 3rd century, to be content with what we have is to be rich. And as Ron Rolheiser said a lot more recently than that, to be grateful is part of the road to being a saint. I've got a few favourite saints, and wouldn't mind being included in their company!

So today, I will say thank you more often, and I will remember to be thankful for my family, friends, neighbours and others I've yet to meet, for my home, for sun and rain, for this cup of coffee, for those chickadees... and I could probably go on all day, except life is calling me on to other things... for which I am thankful...

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Simple Suggestion #34... Reduce your intake of animal products

Do you know what this is?

Yup, the Canada food guide poster from about 1977. I might still have one somewhere, because I contracted type 1 diabetes a few years later when this poster was still in vogue. It's gone through various incarnations, but according to the food guide, no matter when you studied it, Canadian kids were supposed to eat plenty of dairy and meat products (they're at the top, see?), mainly because Health Canada was heavily lobbied by the meat and dairy boards of the time. There was a lot of emphasis on getting enough protein in our diets.

It's only since I've gotten hooked on Voluntary Simplicity that I've seriously questioned the whole animal products thing. No, maybe a little before that, as store-bought meat products began to disagree with me. These days I can hardly touch processed meats, and non-organically grown animal products keep me up at night. I suspect large scale feedlots and the chemical/medicinal substances used to maintain the health of livestock may have something to do with it. Then again, maybe it's those genetically modified organisms being fed to animals that are getting through and messing with my insides. It could be that I'm developing gall bladder issues as I age? I don't really know, and rather than go through tests, I've simply cut down on animal proteins.

What I do know is that, as a result of living more simply, I've been going out of my way to try a few more vegetarian recipes for the sake of our planet. I'm not exactly an animal rights person, though I feel more and more disgusted when I hear stories about the inhumane conditions in which some animals spend their entire lives. For me, it's more that raising animals requires a higher energy input than raising vegetables. Steers, pigs, chickens and a lot of other living things we eat need to be bred, born, innoculated, housed, fed, maintained, shipped, slaughtered, packaged, shipped again, and purchased before they get to my dinner table (and I've probably missed a few steps there), all of which takes incredible amounts of fossil fuels or electricity in a world that's creating far too many carbon emissions. It doesn't make the animals' lives pleasant, either. But all that my garden veggies require is sun and rain and a little elbow grease in the form of weeding, staking and harvesting, and I've gotten to the point where I prefer my garden vegetable soup to steak any day because of the aforementioned concerns about chemicals in my food chain, and unfair living conditions for other living beings. And there are plenty of plant protein sources. I could quite happily live on nuts and quinoa and beans and lentils and...

My best friend announced on Facebook one day that she was going to be a vegetarian, and she's stuck with it ever since. When I grow up, I want to be like her. I'm still a ways from vegetarianism, but I feel myself getting closer every day, as I find more delicious vegetarian recipes that my family and I enjoy. I'm guessing that in the past five years, we've cut our consumption of animal products 20% or more through deciding to eat meatless more often, and it hasn't been a hardship at all, even for my meat-and-potatoes-raised husband. We're growing more of our own veggies and preserving them for longer periods, and when we do cook meats, we stretch them further by cooking smaller portions with more vegetables. I know it's better for the planet, and I have no doubt that it's better for us, too.

So what's cooking at your house tonight?

P.S. Looking for more Simple Suggestions? Try here.

Friday, July 1, 2011

National pride

Two years ago today, my family and I were on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, celebrating Canada's 142nd birthday. Today is Canada's 144th, and I'm reliving some happy memories:
Arriving at the Peace Tower...
the Prime Minister speechifies...
A proud red and white crowd...
Shane Yellowbird singing as...
The Snowbirds roar overhead...
Street musicians playing at the Byward Market...
A perfect Ottawa evening...
complete with sunset skies over St Patrick's...
and more red and white crowds waiting for...

Celebrations here won't be quite like the ones in Ottawa, but we're celebrating nonetheless. We live in a wonderful land blessed with abundance and good-hearted people, so why not celebrate? Happy Canada Day! Happy 144th Birthday, Canada!