Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Simple Plan

Oh my, I've been a slacker. I didn't post my last columns from the Observer. I met a lovely woman at the Blue Mountain Plant Swap today who told me that she loves reading my blog and was disappointed there hadn't been a post in a while.

Here's to you, Lisa!

If I disappear again for the next week, it's only because I am immersed in "Back to the 80's" madness.'s high school musical time! It's been a journey but we're almost there. I'm so proud of our group! But for the next week, my husband and son will be scavenging for food and clean laundry will be a vague memory. Why can't my husband do these things? you ask. Because we've also started a MAJOR renovation of our yard (new siding, deck, re-grading...)

Hence the title...

A Simple Plan

By Andrea Cameron

Someone in my life just turned four. Two weeks ago, I started wondering how we would celebrate. A small family gathering? A clown performance complete with balloon animals and terrified children? A giant blow-up jumpy castle? There are so many ways to mark the birth of our children--some celebrations and subtle, and some are, well, not-so-subtle.

Children's birthday parties can be crazy. Sometimes the child's entire class is invited. Sometimes families spend hundreds of dollars. I've heard of loot bags that rival those given out at the Oscars.

Children's birthday parties are like weddings. We attend a lot of them and vow to do things differently--usually more simply--when our turn comes along. However, as with weddings, simple can be elusive.

That's why we decided to have a picnic with a small group of friends. What could be more simple than a picnic?

For my son's previous three birthdays, we've had a few friends and their children over for dinner. Really, we probably enjoyed the party more than Kieran did. Now that he's four, it's harder to pull off a dinner party. He started dreaming about his special day weeks ago, thwarting my efforts to downplay the day.

I knew I was in trouble when, at breakfast a few days before the birthday picnic, he announced that he wanted a Merry-Go-Round with real horses at his party. Oh, and he clearly expected a troupe of dancing chipmunks. Then, for a while, he demanded a surprise party. Go figure. As the day drew nearer, and such imaginative possibilities continued to grow, I remained steadfast in my plan to keep things simple.

I'd read all kinds of suggestions to minimize the stress children's birthday parties: one guest per year of the child's age, keep things moving along, limit the party to two hours. I adhered to these low-stress rules. I even made gluten-free vanilla cupcakes so we wouldn't have to worry about plates and forks.

As my son continued dreaming about his ideal party, I remained resolute. Then, the night before the big day, my almost-four-year-old looked wistfully out the window and declared that he couldn't wait to taste his chocolate birthday cupcakes.

Note that I had originally made vanilla cupcakes. This is where simplicity melted away like an ice cream cake left in the sun. Common sense pooled into sticky puddles on the patio stones.

And so, I found myself in the kitchen at midnight, surrounded by two thousand bags of different gluten-free flours, stirring chocolate cupcake batter. Before going to bed, my husband stood in the doorway, shaking his head in pity. I had succumbed to the insanity.

That night, I dreamt that I was corralling six horses onto a carousel. Okay, that's not true, but my original laidback attitude transformed into Mother Bear anxiety. I even ran out the morning before the party to buy some disposable Mickey Mouse cups and plates despite my proclamation to make the picnic waste-free.

But on Sunday afternoon, as the sun sparkled on the river, as children chased each other laughing, my priorities realigned. I may have been a little sleepy from my late night baking spree, but I was glad I stayed (almost) true to my original intention.

At the close of our little party, Kieran sat on a lawn chair smiling up at me, chocolate cupcake all over his face. In that brief moment, I remembered him four years earlier, the morning I first saw his tiny curving ears and little bow-tie mouth. That's what the celebration was about.

And he didn't even mention the absence of real horses.

These Days...

Mr. Toad's House
Mr. Toad came to visit. His arrival was most unpleasant since he appeared in Kieran's sand pit. I looked up to realize that my once-gentle child had pinned one of Mr. Toad's legs with a plastic shovel. I knew that I would be horrified should one of the legs be removed and my son would be even more horrified when he realized it was actually Mr. Toad.

"That's Mr. Toad!" I yelled.

Kieran recoiled. "I didn't know what it was!"

We examined Mr. Toad and he appeared to be unscathed (at least that lets me sleep at night). We then followed Mr. Toad around for a while. Interest in Mr. Toad's house was revived prompting the gift of a pine cone bookshelf.

Mike has used the old framing from our former deck to frame a new treehouse. It's going to be bigger than our house...We're waiting for cedar to finish the decking.

Kieran loves to help his dad. There's been a lot of power tool usage lately. This was one of the rare moments when I actually watched them work. (That drill could slip, you know!)

Our now infamous "simple" picnic was a grand success. We had a great time.

a simple plan...a perfect day...
Looking for something fun to do tomorrow?
Head out to Wendy's Local Market in Lyndhurst
May 30th
Lots of organic and heritage veggie and herb seedlings
Experts on hand to offer gardening advice
If I didn't have rehearsal tomorrow, I'd be there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

In the Moment

Here's my column from this week's Observer...

Every Friday at lunch I cry. Not because the week is over. Oh no. I cry with laughter.

Friday is one of the days my improv team and I meet to work on skills and scenes. We participate in the annual Kingston Improv Games and perform at school functions. Lately, we just meet for fun.

Sometimes, my group embarks on a journey to change a light bulb in the style of a Greek Myth. Other times, they tell the story of an everyday invention. The stories can be silly, divergent, random, and entertaining, but there's always one thing in common: they are truly in-the-moment. Anytime the scenes become too rehearsed or when we try to recycle an idea, the energy is lost.

This is the joy of improv. Other than the time spent developing team dynamics, the students create spontaneously. There are magical moments where someone says a perfect pun or a scene ties together seamlessly. There's no preparation, no paperwork, no stress. Just the power of the present.

They say that people who laugh live longer. I also find that these little pockets of humour in my week allow me to cope with other stresses better. After all, if we can laugh at ourselves, we can forgive ourselves. Laughing together unites us, makes us appreciate our shared humanity. We learn that humour doesn't come at someone else's expense (unless it's a re-enactment of a certain political leader being hit by a shoe).

I think it's good for the kids too, to just have a good belly laugh and then go back to worrying about marks and homework with a lighter heart. As adults, sometimes we like to diminish the problems of youth. They have no bills, no kids, no responsibility. What could they have to worry about?

I'm one of those people who saves all of my journals. When I look back at my writing from high school, I'm amazed at the fear and insecurity of my teenage self. In photos from those days, I looked so confident, with my black eyeliner and spiral perm. In my graduation photo, I'm ready to save the world. I'm glad I have these journals to remember the reality of my problems. I wrote about the Gulf War and how sick I felt about it all. I raged about nuclear weapons. The night of the Montreal Massacre, I wrote pages of stilted prose about how I never wanted to leave home to attend university. I wrote about feeling misunderstood. Not to mention the heartbreak of young love. Sigh.

So, I'm glad I know that my fears were real. And that the anxiety was real. Today, as a high school teacher, I try to remember that. That's why I make a place for laughter in my week. In the face of academic and social pressure, we need it. Awareness hurts and adolescence is a time of increased awareness of both self and society.

My point is, we all need a good chuckle. We aren't ignoring the bigger problems that need solving. While my improv team pretends to be a herd of rabid goats or sings mock Broadway show tunes, the earth still needs saving. Genocide devastates nations. People starve. But I think that taking the time to laugh gives us the energy to go back out into a world that can be awfully darn depressing. Maybe it even gives us enough fuel to do some good.

So I must say that I'm grateful to my band of improv-ers. They remind me of the importance of the present moment. They remind me of the power of stories. And they give me an excuse to laugh out loud. Thanks to them, I'll grow older with laugh lines rather than wrinkles.

And scene!

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Painting a Birdhouse

Poppy on phone: "Guess what? I'm bringing you a birdhouse to paint."
"Oh good, Poppy! I just love birds!

And snakes..."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

An Evening for Shari

Okay, it's been over a week. I've been thinking about what to write about our Night for Shari that we held last Friday. We had no idea how it would go and it surpassed expectations. At one point, I looked around the room. Matthew Barber was playing, hundreds of people were gathered, Shari was smiling...and I knew it had all worked out. The Yacht Club was a perfect venue. So many local businesses and individuals contributed items for the silent auction, it was overwhelming. Basically, it turned out to be a great night of family, friends, and live music.

Speaking of the music, Matthew Barber was outstanding...and I'm not just saying that because he sang some Leonard Cohen. We are now all official fans. We bought one of his CDs and it's become the staple in our car (when our four year old tyrant doesn't want to hear "Wild Rumpus" or "The Potty Song").

Shari and Jim even got up to speak at the end of the night. It must have been a hard thing to do and I was so proud of them.

Thanks to everyone who made this happen...

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Special Kind of Mom...

I'm so sad that this column didn't appear in The Observer this week. Good thing I have my blog so I can still share it.

A Special Kind of Mom...

There's a certain kind of mother I'd like to honour on Mother's Day. It's not the working mom or the stay-at-home mom, but she may be labelled as either. It's not the Yummy Mummy, the Mompreneur, or the Mommy Blogger but again, she may fall into these categories as well. This Mother's Day, I want to honour mothers who raise children with special needs.

Over the past four years, I've met all kinds of exceptional moms. I've read their blogs. I've called them to ask for advice or to offer comfort. We've corresponded over email, sharing our fears and triumphs. I've been amazed at the heroism of these women I've met, many of whom I'd never have known had I not turned to them when I was looking for answers. They've been to the dark place where a parent's worst fear comes true and have pulled themselves and their children back into the world. After coming to terms with a devastating diagnosis, whether it be during pregnancy, just after birth, or as their child grows, darkness descends. These mothers not only find enough light to keep going, but to embrace joy again.

Mothers of special needs children are amazingly resilient and resourceful, often becoming experts in their child's condition. They dance the line between accepting their children and challenging them. Exceptional mothers have to come to terms with the reality of their children's future. They worry about what happens when they themselves are gone. What kind of life will their adult child have without a passionate advocate?

When I see them at the pool, at the park, and at playgroups, I know that these routine things are not always easy. There's the reminder that their children are different, that life is sometimes more difficult. But then there's the beauty of continuing on anyway. Of loving and living in the face of great challenge.
And there's humour.

One of my friend's daughters has a neuro-developmental disorder. This little girl accepted a sample from an employee in a grocery store. When the child didn't respond with a thank you, the annoyed employee asked the little girl to "say the magic word."

"Abracadabra," she replied with confidence.

Then, there's my other friend who's son was born with a rare genetic condition. He is non-verbal and cannot sit independently. One day a well-intentioned speech pathologist student came to her house to offer support. The conversation went something like this:

"So, how do you communicate with your son?"

"What do you mean?"

"How do you know what he wants?"

"I just do."

"What does he do specifically to let you know that he's happy?"

"I can tell by the sounds he makes and by the way he moves."

"Well, I've brought an information package on how you can better communicate with your son."

Some days, it's magic. Abracadabra magic. Some days, you're holding a packet on how to communicate with your own kid.

Each developmental milestone becomes a summit to peak. Things like eating, sleeping, mobility, communication and toileting can become complicated tasks. Events that may be rites of passage for typical children and their parents--things like school--are daunting for families of children with special needs.

And somehow, in the midst of medical appointments, surgeries, medications, therapy, and daily care, these mothers find a way to change the world. It's because of exceptional mothers that children with special needs now attend their neighbourhood schools. It's because of these mothers that we no longer send exceptional children away to live in isolation. Consequently, our society has become more compassionate and understanding--but, there's still a lot of work to be done.

So to all you exceptional mothers out there...

I'll be thinking of you on May 9th.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Tale of One Turtle

So, my column is now being published in the local paper, The Observer. They are not yet on-line so I'll be publishing my column here.

Good things happened on Earth Day this year. We wore green, made promises, and planted trees. It's all lovely, but I worry that something's missing.

On Earth Day, I tend to think about turtles. I don't know a lot about turtles. But one spring day, about a decade ago, I learned a few important things.

I was teaching in Mount Forest, Ontario. On this particular day, I headed home along the country roads towards Kincardine. I came up over a hill only to be greeted by a horrific sight. A dozen turtle carcasses littered the road ahead. A metaphor for nature's struggle against humans, their instinct had urged them to cross. In what I assume was an effort to lay eggs for the next generation, they had been killed by truck drivers, farmers, and commuters like me.

Cringing from the gore, I almost missed her, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. One was still alive. I pulled onto the shoulder to watch.

The turtle put one foot in front of the other, answering her primal call to keep moving. I heard the rumble of a transport truck in the distance and braced myself as it advanced. The truck passed and I opened my eyes to see that the turtle--having retreated into her shell--had survived. Her vulnerability nauseated me.

Like I said, I didn't know a lot about turtles. So it didn't seem that outlandish to proceed to the middle of the highway, pick the turtle up, and carry her to her desired egg-laying destination. In those days, I'd been watching a lot of Crocodile Hunter...

I dashed out to the centre of the road. The turtle was about the diameter of a hub cap. I hadn't realized how slimey a swamp-dwelling creature would be until I was up close. Green algae clung to her shell.

Dodging greasy turtle guts, I ran back to the car for something to lay over the turtle so I could pick her up. All I could find was my new coat. I'll wash it, I thought as I nobly grabbed my latest purchase. Anything to save such a dignified creature.

By the time I returned, the turtle had emerged from her shell to proceed at her slow, but determined, pace. I laid the coat over her back, causing her to pause.
Before I reached down to lift her, I heard Steve Irwin's voice in my mind. "Crickey...she's a beauty." If he could pick up a venomous cobra, I could surely carry a friendly little turtle...

It's important to note here that given my lack of turtle knowledge, I certainly didn't know what species I'd approached. More importantly, I didn't know how to identify the snapping variety.

I placed my hands on either side of her shell and lifted the creature a few inches off the ground. When her long neck shot toward me and jaws clamped shut so close to my hand, I felt a rush of air, I jumped half-way into the other lane. I was lucky no other cars were coming or I would have joined the road kill.

I ran back to my car and fell into the driver's seat. After confirming the presence of all of my digits, I rested my forehead on the steering wheel to catch my breath.

Fine little Miss Turtle, I thought. Get squished by a transport. See if I try to help you again.

I looked back to the centre of the road. The turtle continued her journey. There was only one problem. My coat still lay on her back.

Grabbing a stick from the ditch, I crept up behind the turtle. I retrieved my coat and returned to the car once again.

Despite her rude response to my Good Samaritan attempt, I couldn't leave her there alone. I decided bear witness to her plight. Whether her story ended in triumph or tragedy, I would remain.

Minutes passed. Vehicles passed. But nothing hit her.

She made it. She made it to the other side.

And on Earth Day, I think about the importance of spending time in nature. We must realize how small we are in comparison to her wonders. Like my encounter with the snapping turtle, we must witness nature's struggle to understand our role in her destruction. Before we can change, we have to care.