Lessons From My Dutch Mother

Stoic stitchery. This is a paraphrase from The Secret Garden.

This weekend, my 12-year-old son installed the Duolingo app on my phone and I began 5-minute-a-day language lessons in Dutch.

Beyond feeling like learning Dutch is “something I’ve always wanted to do”, and therefore — at 50 — I’d really better get on with it, I’m not exactly sure why I’m bothering. (I’m also not certain Duolingo is the best tool for this task; but that’s another issue and beyond the scope of this post.) The cold hard truth of the matter is that the only Dutch speaker in my life is my mother, who has just turned 86. And although there are apparently incidences of stroke taking away second languages and leaving first ones intact, she does not seem to be faltering at all when it comes to her mental capacities. In other words, I’m perfectly aware that the *need* for me to one day know how to speak Dutch is quite remote.

As many of you probably know, I have a Dutch and German background. My mother emigrated from The Netherlands in the 60s, and then met and married my German father, who had immigrated to Canada when he was 17.

According to my mother, my parents initially had plans to teach my brother and me to speak both their native tongues. Unfortunately for my brother and me, my parents’ resolve on the matter faltered and died very early on, with the result that, except for a smattering of exposure when visiting with relatives (and a quick jaunt through in-one-ear-and-out-the-other high school German), my brother and I did not ever *really* learn to speak either language.

What follows is but one example to illustrate how incredibly unfortunate this state-of-affairs was for me:

My last memory of my maternal grandmother is of her standing on her stoop in Pernis, a small town just outside Rotterdam, waving to me as I — 19-years-young — walked down the street to catch the bus on what was the first leg of my journey back home to Canada. She had, just a couple of hours earlier, led me out of the house, walked with me arm in arm amongst the trees in their backyard orchard, all the while speaking, pointing, gesticulating, looking at my face to see if I understood anything she had said. I caught a few words, here and there, but the underlying here-is-the-important-thing-I’m-trying-to-impress-upon-my-Canadian-granddaughter was entirely lost. Finally, the frustration in her voice a palpable thing, she shook her head in regret and with a rueful half-smile, gave up.

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t confess that I find it diffiicult, at times, to recall this last day with my oma and to not feel anger at all that was lost.

But of course, dear reader, as you and I both know, it’s useless to cry over spilled milk. So I (metaphorically) pull myself up by my bootstraps (thank you, German father?) and give myself a stern talking-to and proceed to list off all the life lessons my Dutch mother taught me, for which I am utterly grateful:

One thread a night. Dutch girls are (were?) an industrious lot, and I grew up under the notion that if you were sitting, your hands had to be busy. Now, my mother wasn’t an absolute tyrant about it: she herself was an avid reader, and yes, I was permitted to sit and read, but only once I had made some form of daily progress on whatever project I was working on. One thread a night, my mother would continually say, and eventually you will have (for example) a finished cross-stitch piece. Although I sometimes resented the fact that I, THE GIRL, had to sit and embroider every evening — while my brother, THE BOY, did NOT — this has proven to be an invaluable lesson to me. It taught me fortitude and perseverance, it taught me that large and complex projects — crafty or otherwise — are entirely doable when using the one thread a night, each journey begins with a single stepif-you-never-get-started-you’ll-never-get-finished approach.

Is it necessary? The contemplative Is it necessary? is a question I heard often growing up. I remember sliding pocket-sized Peanuts comic books into paper bags — thank-you-for-coming-to-my-birthday-party — while my mother muttered mutinously about how SHE wasn’t going to be the parent who buys UNNECESSARY plastic junk to hand out to our guests. (Ground zero, apparently: this must be where my loathing of plastic crap originated.)

Although I occasionally railed at this frugal and oftentimes utilitarian approach to life — I KNOW a crib skirt is unnecessary, Mum, but I think it will look nice, and YES, I AM going to continue sewing it! — it’s come in remarkably handy while raising children. It wasn’t until I read this post on Finding Dutchland about the pressure an American ex-pat felt when considering whether or not to purchase a Hatchimal, that I fully appreciated that it was precisely this early training with this question that allowed me to coast nonchalantly through the Tickle Me Elmo madness when my daughter was a baby. It was the question that allowed me to easily say No to my children when they asked for all-the-crap littering check-out lanes. It was the question that resulted in Easter baskets and Christmas stockings filled with nothing but socks and books and single bars of chocolate, not a single blade of plastic “grass” in sight, no Dollarama trinkets deemed necessary.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the simplistic beauty of this question. After all, if you only surround yourself with necessary things, if you only perform necessary tasks — if you free yourself from the superfluous — then that allows you to truly see and appreciate and take care of those things that are important.

And, as an added bonus, focussing on what’s necessary is also a more environmentally-friendly way to live. I could do an entire post on all the unnecessary stuff marketers tell us we need, but which in fact is not only unnecessary, but actually harmful…

Sometimes unnecessary things are nice. And, well, kind of necessary. Tulips, potted plants, table runners covering bare wood, suikerbroodspeculaas, coffee and cake and a visit with a friend. There’s *got* to be some lovely unnecessariness to life; it can’t all be about sweeping the stoop and ironing the tea towels and building the dikes.

When you have a book, you have a friend. As I’ve discussed before, I came quite late to this knowledge. But now … I’m not sure where I would be without books; I suspect I’d be very lonely indeed.

Think happy thoughts. Don’t dwell. Remember that there is always someone out there who has it worse than you do.  AKA: DIY Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The Dutch are known for their level-headed practicality and stoicism. And while I do firmly believe there is truth to the premise that stoicism is sometimes the only way one gets-oneself-through-life, it needs to be said that Dutch sink-or-swim stoicism, while producing a heckuva lot of strong swimmers, can also result in drownings. It can, and often does, come off as unfeeling. And, quite honestly, as dismissive. I don’t know where the Dutch are at with regards to mental illness nowadays, but my childhood experiences have shown me that there is a vital distinction between preaching stoicism to others, and preaching it to oneself. In other words, I can dismiss and diminish my feelings; I can encourage myself to stay strong, to pull myself together, to cultivate happy thoughts — if that’s what I think will help me get through something (and it usually does) — but I don’t appreciate it when others dismiss or diminish my feelings, or imply that I’m weak or self-indulgent for even daring to feel those feelings in the first place. Just sayin’.

So … I need to find a positive way to end this post (because I am trying so damn hard these days to keep positive) and the only way I can think to do that is to share a bit of knitting. Gezellig — THE quintessential Dutch word — is usually used to refer to the cosy feeling one gets when in a warm atmosphere and in the company of convivial friends or family. This introverted homebody finds knitting — while drinking koffie, while in the company of 12-year-old zoon who is quietly reading a boek — to be the very definition of gezellig.

Stockholm scarf. Two strands of MADELINETOSH Merino Light held together: denim and Dr. Zhivago’s sky.
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Keep On Keeping On

Keep trying. So, I went to the PTO meeting. And spoke, very briefly, about greening up the activities they run. And yes, my voice shook.

Prior to going, I had asked for some help in honing what to say. Less is more, was the advice. Don’t lecture. Change takes time.  Although I railed (internally) at the latter rejoinder, I think the advice was probably spot on: I didn’t alienate anyone that evening. (Because (apparently; who knew?), alienation is unhelpful and makes people dig in their heels.) I’m now planning on attending all the upcoming meetings, and speaking up at each one, addressing each issue as it arises. What’s more, I’m starting to see that seeds I’ve sown over the years are finally starting to sprout: people I’ve talked to are now starting to talk to others. It’s just as Deborah told me in a comment following my last post: Don’t assume that if you don’t win them over, you’ve lost. Never underestimate the possibility that someone (or several people) there will go away and think about something differently as a result of your intervention.

Keep reducing.  Determined to do even more to shop local, I spent this summer’s Saturday mornings at the farmers’ market. I brought my own cloth grocery bags, but also made sure to bring my ugly lace produce bags as well as plenty of clean plastic bread bags. All the sellers were more than happy to dispense their fruits and veggies into my bags, rather than providing me with one of theirs, and I managed to not take ANY new plastic bags home from the market this summer. This counter-of-all-things is very happy about this small victory.

I’ve also been doing more shopping at my local bulk store. This past February, Bulk Barn began allowing customers to bring in their own reusable containers. This has proven to be dead easy: I make my list, pack the required number of containers in a bag, stop at the cashier for pre-weighing, and then simply fill the containers.

The end of the summer also saw me on what could easily be described as a TEAR through the house. I was literally flinging cupboard doors open, looking for things to purge. This week, I heard about the latest decluttering craze: Swedish death cleaning. Funnily enough, this meshes EXACTLY with what I was feeling at the time: the instinctual and deep-seated desire to take care of things now, rather than to keep putting off the inevitable, not to mention the uncomfortable realization that if I don’t step up to the task of taking care of things then that burden will one day fall on my children. (To be honest, I was also feeling rather desperate about finally, finally getting to the promised point where I will have cleared enough (literal) detritus to see a (metaphorical) clear path forward.)

Keep the existentialistic nattering at bay. I’m trying to drown out my existentialistic thoughts. Which are pretty damn loud. They seep through and attempt to drain the colour from everything.

Pre-parenthood I listened to music all the time. U2, REM, Barenaked Ladies, The Pretenders, The Tragically Hip, Tom Petty. And when I wasn’t listening to music I had the radio tuned to CBC.

Enter parenthood: bawling babies, talkative toddlers, prattling preschoolers — and suddenly it was all too much. Sensory overload. And worse: the Wait, what? missing of things. The only way to cope was to turn everything else off.

Now that my house is emptying of children, now that the silence sits on my shoulders, a weight compounded by worry as my thoughts wander too much into jungles best left unexplored, I need noise. Radio programs. Podcasts. Music, music, music. This is such a night-and-day shift that I believe I surprised my 19-year-old son. He came into the kitchen one day this summer to find me chopping veggies to Coldplay. Who are you and what have you done with my mother?, his expression seemed to suggest.

(This past week has been The Tragically Hip, on repeat. My fellow Canadians will understand; for others, there’s this song, my favourite.)

Keep reading. I abandoned Beatrix Potter – A Life in Nature. I’m sorry, Linda Lear; it was just so.long. On a whim, I picked up Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Because, what a name for a heroine! And such promise, that title: maybe if Eleanor is completely fine, I’ll be completely fine too. (Because that’s how fiction works, right?) It was part laugh-out-loud quirkiness, part cringeworthy Oh-don’t-be-doing-THAT-Eleanor!, part heartwarming love story, and part heart-wrenching life-can-be-cruel, dontcha know …

After that, I went on to Station Eleven. Perhaps a post-pandemic-civilization-has-collapsed-now-what? kind of novel was not the best choice for the summer I was having. But although the story was often grim it was also, ultimately, one of hope. Its back-and-forth movement between past and present as it told the tale of a travelling Shakespearean symphony roaming amongst new settlements (“because survival is insufficient”) — spoke directly to my story-loving heart. Apart from that, I loved its utility as a thought-exercise (what happens when there are no longer any doctors, nurses, hospitals, medicines? What happens when there is no one left to transport fuel to a gas station? What happens when stores are emptied of goods but the supply chain is irrevocably broken? What happens when law-and-order goes missing, never to return?).

Then came Matt Haig’s How To Stop Time. This was a lovely read: an interesting concept (the protagonist’s life stretches on and on and on); spare writing; a light-handed sprinkling of humanistic pearls of wisdom. My copy has been dog-eared, and I’m well into another of his novels: The Humans, which I am completely loving. Next up will be Haig’s Reasons To Stay Alive. And then, what the heck, ALL of his other works. (Thank you, Lynda; I love your reviews and recommendations.)

Keep learning. Keep my eyes open. As much as I’d like to look away, to start humming Mmm-I-can’t-hear-you, to bury my head in the sand, I simply can’t. If this means tears are streaming as I watch A Plastic Ocean or Chasing Coral, so be it.

Keep knitting. Socks, socks, socks. Hockey season has started, which means I’m once again that mum who knits in the stands during practice. I’m also determined to knit while watching TV, because although multi-tasking usually makes me feel I’m doing two things poorly, productivity is key to dispelling the icky feeling I get when sitting in front of the TV. We’re making our way through Star Trek Voyager, determinedly turning our 12-year-old son into a Trekkie. We must have missed quite a lot back when it originally aired in the 90s and we had to be home on Mumblemumble night in order to catch it, because until last weekend I was quite in the dark about how Seven-Of-Nine came to be freed from The Borg. (And inquiring minds do love to know…)

Keep exercising. I’m leaning on a phrase former friends used when describing their über-strict parenting style: Once is a habit. This is the phrase that broke my inertia and keeps me going. I have walked on the basement treadmill every.single.day since mid-June. (I refuse to stop, even for one day, because I know that (with me) Once is a habit is a concept that works both ways.) I get up early enough that I can do sixty minutes … seventy, seventy-five, even eighty on occasion. Once I pass forty-five, I feel like Forrest Gump: I could happily run walk *forever*. My 19-year-old son tells me that’s the runner’s high. (Related: I’ve told my husband when marijuana is legalized next year, I’m going to buy some. I think he thinks I’m joking.)

Keep reaching out. It was just Canadian Thanksgiving, and I’d like to say thank you; I’m so grateful to those of you who not only bear with me as I go on my philosophical — and, ahem, oftentimes depressing, lecturing, alienating — meanderings, but who also take the time to reach back to me. You make this earnest-and-anxious fish-out-of-water feel less alone.

—ing

Wondering … how to get back to clicking publish.

Writing … umpteen drafts; words that question everything; words I’m not brave enough to speak aloud.

Suspecting … my words don’t matter anyway.

Needing … escape.

Reading … The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Loving it. Loving knowing my daughter will want to read it too.

Planning … to read more. To fill the year — and quiet the internal chatter — with more and more reading. On the list: Mrs Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury; Diary of a Provincial LadyThe Tenant of Wildfell HallThe Return of the NativeIce Diaries: An Antarctic MemoirNorth and South.

Noticing … a pattern in that reading list: classics, classism, feminism, environmentalism; not a single contemporary work.

Continuing … to read aloud to my 11-year-old son. This fall we read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass). I had read it before, but absolutely loved re-reading it; my son was — gratifyingly — enthralled with the depth and complexity of the story. We’re currently reading The Alchemyst series, and are on book #3.

Feeling … grateful that my son is the kind of kid who, at age eleven, will still lean shoulder to shoulder against me as I read, and who, when I ask, Now, where were we?, is able to tell me exactly what happened at the end of the previous day’s reading.

Realizing … 40-some years on, I can still “hear” my Dutch grandfather’s voice, and can picture him across the table, as he prayed and then read aloud from the Bible after lunch. Onze Vader in de hemel…

Knitting … constantly. A hat, a smitten, a pair of mittens, and three miniature Weasley sweater ornaments in the weeks before Christmas. Another hat and a half in January, some progress on yet more socks, and another pair of mittens requested and planned.

Listening … to CBC Radio and podcasts. As It HappensIdeasTapestry. Listening to Tapestry led me to the really lovely podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.

Cooking … everything Oh She Glows. 2016 was the International Year of Pulses (legumes, for those unfamiliar with the term pulse); I meant to do a post about it, but didn’t…

Drinking … black coffee and green tea.

Enjoying … darning socks. Really.

Waiting … for snow. We did have a white Christmas, but then came rain and warm temperatures and now the snow is gone.

Liking … my 2016 wall calendar so much (it was a year of Amanda White’s Writers’ Houses) that I wish I could just keep using it in perpetuity.

Deciding … to put away the sewing machine.

Looking … for reasons to be optimistic.

Watching … hockey practices while knitting.

Ignoring … cold hands while knitting while watching hockey practices.

Questioning … if the word work is losing its meaning as a verb.

Considering … the various scenarios that could arise with Trump as US president. Aren’t we all …

Marvelling … at the ability of a fair few to be willfully blind to facts and to not see that which is right under their noses.

Admiring … a certain young woman who is brave enough to go on exchange.

Embracing … my looming 50th and my greying hair.

Wishing … I knew if some things were worth my while.

Making … inroads in purging sentimental clutter. I’ve bagged some baby clothes that have been sitting on a chair in our bedroom for the past six months.

Cringing … at the fact that some of those baby clothes are 20 years old. And that I allowed 20-year-old baby clothes to sit on a chair in our bedroom for six months.

Buying … new glasses. After three years with a frame I loathed I now have a pair which (I think) says classic with just a hint of edginess, exactly the look I was going for.

Hoping … the people I am worrying about will be okay.

Wanting … that certain young woman on exchange to pick up some locally-made sock yarn. I know I told her not to worry about it, but I really do want some.

Pretending … not to be worried. About everything. All the time.

Trying … to believe that small things matter.

Randomly, On a Summer’s Day

I am — once again — reading the Harry Potter series aloud to my youngest son.

This is his second read-aloud, and although I’m thinking this must be my fourth complete-series read-aloud, I may be mistaken; my older son claims I did not actually read the entire series aloud to him. Said older son is, in fact, extremely irritated with the fact that I am STILL reading books aloud to his 11 year-old brother: WHY are you reading to him?! He can read on his own! He’s like TWENTY! 

Um … because my 11 year-old asked? Because I LOVE Harry Potter and am more than happy to re-visit the story?

I think the thing I love most about Harry Potter is the richness of the story. I’m one of those easily fascinated people, someone who positively craves details, and — curmudgeonly irritation over comma splices aside — Rowling’s vividly imagined and deeply nuanced world absolutely bewitched me 😉 when I first read Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone* years ago, before my kids were old enough for the books. As a knitter, one of the details which utterly charms me is the role knitting plays in the series: Hagrid knitting a large yellow something; Mrs. Weasley presenting knit jumpers* for Christmas; Fred and George fighting off hand-knit mittens; Hermione knitting hats for house-elves; Dumbledore wanting — above all else — thick woollen socks, and confessing a fascination with Muggle knitting patterns.

On the subject of knitting (and coincidentally continuing with the Harry Potter theme), I’m knitting yet another set of Hermione’s Everyday Socks (in what is not quite, but hints at, Gryffindor scarlet).

That would be my daughter’s Gryffindor scarf underneath my knitting. The Sorting Hat would definitely place her in Gryffindor; it would be Hufflepuff for her mother

In January, I had set a goal of one pair of socks per month, and although swimming lessons and soccer practices have afforded me some extra knitting time this summer, and although I continue to slot in knitting whenever I’m able (in between pancake flips, for example) I’m still finding that goal to be a bit too ambitious. I am continually torn: how best to spend my free evening hours, when my youngest has gone to bed. Although I’d like to be reading more (I’m almost halfway through Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca), the fact is, I love making things. I cannot imagine a life in which I am NOT making things.

On the subject of making things, my sewing continues, albeit very slowly now that the kids are out of school. My 17 year-old son has cleared his schoolwork out of the dining room and I’ve moved my sewing machine and serger to the window end of the table and set up the ironing board in front of the window. The light is MUCH better and I love looking out, snatching glimpses of green and growing things as I work at sewing or ironing or mending.

Details, details … the two boxes at the forefront are Dutch biscuit tins (which I have had *forever*); they house my spools of thread.

And lastly, I deliberately used the term work in my last sentence, even though the flow would have been better had I just said, “…as I sew or iron or mend.” I’ve just hit a how-the-heck-did-this-happen anniversary: twenty years ago, mid-July 1996, I went on maternity leave from my job as a pharmacist. The very day I started my maternity leave was the day my husband told me he had gotten the position he had been hoping for — the one in another province which would necessitate a move; the one he had assured his pregnant wife he would *never* get — setting in motion a chain of events which resulted in me not returning to my career. Twenty years of stay-at-home-motherhood is a long time to ponder the meaning of work, and — cough*whatasurprise*cough — I have a LOT of thoughts on this subject. I could do a whole (meandering, semantical, over-thinking) post on work … you know, if I were actually brave enough to wade into this quagmire on the internet …


*Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone and sweaters (and a myriad of other changes) in the U.S. editions…  The Americanization of these stories so got my detail-loving-goat that — even though we were living in the U.S. at the time — I bought our books on trips back to Canada.

The Day the i-Pad Wandered Off To Die …

… my ten year-old son and I did a KenKen together at breakfast.

And then, after school, we raided his older brother’s bookshelf and found some new-to-him books — The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Klutz Encyclopedia of Immaturity (volumes I and II; we seemingly really wanted to encourage immaturity in our older son) — which he pored over all afternoon, alternately rapt and giggling.

So, of course — needless to say — the i-Pad didn’t actually wander off to die.

I had hidden the damn thing.

And the reason I had hidden the damn thing was because I had decided, early that morning this past fall, that I had simply had enough.

Enough of time limits on devices which were constantly being stretched; enough of me nagging him over and over and over again to get off; enough of me wondering how the heck we had progressed from him being allowed to watch amazingly cool and creative videos on MinuteEarth or MinutePhysics or CGP Grey to him being immersed in — addicted to! — the utterly inane world inhabited by Minecraft YouTubers.

And perhaps, had I not been in such a foul and fragile mood that day, I would have simply ‘fessed up. I would have been, you know, an adult and told him I had taken it away. I would have told him that he was spending too much time on it, and that that time was pre-empting other more important things, things like reading books, or perusing Popular Science or National Geographic or Muse, or playing with Lego, or just plain conversing with me as I stood there in the kitchen making his lunch while he ate his breakfast.

But because it was last fall and I was neck-deep in an existentialistic grinchy funk and my husband was away yet again, for the whole freaking week, I took the easy way out.

I lied played dumb.

So when he asked, that morning, Hey, Mom, do you know where the i-Pad went? I simply said, Huh! Is it not on the couch? Well, then I dunno…

Remarkably, it took three days (three days of a wholehearted effort on my part to distract distract distract) before the truth came out.

We were walking home from school when he floated yet another query of Where the heck could that i-Pad have gone?!

Sighing internally, knowing I was going to have to tell him sooner or later that I had imperiously made up some new rules (no technology Monday through Friday afternoon), but suddenly inspired (and truth-be-told, desperately wanting to inject some humour into what I suspected would shortly be an angry situation), I said, “Hey, you know how old our i-Pad is, right?”

(Very, in case you’re wondering; he rattled off something about generation two.)

“And you know how it hasn’t been working properly recently?”

(He agreed. It was a very annoying i-Pad as of late; even I had noticed that.)

“And you know what some animals do when they get old and sick?”

(I didn’t give him time to answer, reflecting as soon as the words left my lips that it was his brother who had been animal-crazy, not him.)

“They wander off to die!” I announced.

(So, yes, I’ve since looked this up. Um, that’s right: specifically for this post. (Yes, I may be a bit of a nerd). And it turns out this wandering off to die thing may actually be a myth.)

My son looked at me funny and said, “The i-Pad did not wander off to die, Mom!”

(At this point — no word of a lie — I had a sudden vision of my son, as an adult, pushing his frail and elderly mother out onto an ice floe. And it occurred to me that I would perhaps one day sorely regret ever putting this nugget of an idea into his head.)

And then the jig was up.

“You took it, didn’t you?” he suddenly accused. “Where did you hide it?”

Ah … I tell ya, hardly a day goes by that I don’t feel slightly sorry for my kids, saddled as they are with me for a mother …

Because my son didn’t have a hope-in-hell of arguing me down from my position.

In the first place, I am, and always have been, a bit of a Luddite. When I was in university, I typed my term papers and essays on a manual typewriter, despite the fact that there was not only a perfectly good electric typewriter in the house, but also one of those early you-know-you’re-a-nerdy-geek-if-you-actually-have-one computers (complete with word processing capabilities and a dot matrix printer!), sitting there, waiting for use, in my father’s basement study.

Making matters worse for my son is the fact that his Luddite mother has an inherent, nearly supercilious, do-something-constructive-with-your-time!, distrust of video games. An attitude, I admit, that is borne of ignorance and compounded by idealism: I have never — not once — played Pac Man; I don’t get the point of Angry Birds or SimCity (even though I can appreciate the fact that my husband and son get a kick out of playing them together); the fact that tweens play Grand Theft Auto makes me despair for humanity; and I greet claims of superior hand-eye coordination, which are floated as an excuse for all of it, with a shake of the head and a heavy bit of eye-rolling. And while I know for a fact that there are indeed PLENTY of video-game-playing-kids who grow up to lead perfectly normal lives (cue the utterances of So then shut the hell up, mom who doesn’t know anything, yet somehow has a blog), that fact fails to change how I feel about them.

The second battle my ten year-old son faces has to do with his siblings. As you may have noticed, we have a rather wide age gap between our first two children (who are now 19 and 17 years of age) and our youngest, who is a month away from his eleventh birthday. This means we have a bit of a social science experiment going on in our household: because we didn’t buy into the need to get computer games for our older two kids, AND because we were late adopters of home internet service, our older two essentially passed the first decade or so of their lives computer and video game free. Our youngest, on the other hand, cannot remember a time when we didn’t have a computer or the internet.

And here’s the thing: I can tell the difference.

Although it’s not fair to compare children, it hasn’t escaped my notice that our youngest isn’t quite the reader that the older two were, both of whom became voracious readers with little to no prodding on my part. They read all the time — books, magazines, encyclopedias — anything they could get their hands on. And while their young lives weren’t technology-free — they watched plenty of children’s programming on TV — there seems to be something fundamentally different about TV-watching versus gaming, or even TV-watching versus what I’ll term I’m-just-going-to-click-one more-link internet browsing.

This past weekend I was listening to Spark, a program on CBC radio, and they had a really good segment on why your kid can’t turn off a game when you ask, and holy moly hello … this is finally addressing the refrain I hear constantly from friends who have kids the same age as my youngest. We’re all going through the same thing, and yet there still seems to be that myth out there, that subtle parental put-down that says you’re not doing your job as a parent if your child is hooked to a screen.

I ran up against this perception at a meeting last spring with the resource teacher, when upon discussing my youngest and listing off activities he enjoyed, I confessed that he was rather more fond of the i-Pad than I would have liked. Her response was a cut-and-dry, matter-of-fact “Set limits!”, to which I replied, rather testily, “I DO set limits! The problem is that it’s addictive. I can tell my son to get off and he’ll say just a sec. Two minutes later, I will tell him once again to get off and he’ll say just a sec. And on and on it goes, until 20 minutes half an hour 45 minutes later, I am having to physically wrench the device from his hands!”

(Thank goodness there was a younger teacher in the meeting with us. She chimed in at that point and said, “Devices ARE addictive; I’ve even noticed that with my own use.”)

So when I finally did have a proper I’m the adult and you’re the child and here’s what I’ve been observing conversation with my son, he — amazingly — understood my point. And we have managed to keep him technology-free Monday through Friday afternoon ever since. I’m happy to report he’s reading WAY more than he used to. He’s helped me on a few more KenKens. He’s been devouring the Popular Science magazines that we subscribe to. He’s even occasionally been dipping into the encyclopedias, just as his older brother used to do.


I should probably leave this story here, but it seems I’m utterly incapable of leaving out this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction twist at the end, despite the fact that it hints at just a bit of dysfunction in an otherwise strong 25 year-long marriage:

Here’s what happened when Friday rolled around after that first technology-free week, and my technology-loving-Angry Bird-appreciating-I-love-her-but-why-is-my-wife-such-a-Luddite husband came home from his business trip (to a province with a lower sales tax, I have to add (in an ominous foreshadowy sorta way 😉 )):

My husband (henceforth known as “my child’s father”) commiserated with our ten year-old son, who wasted no time in telling him what his mother had done, to which my child’s father replied, “Yes, I heard about that!”. And when my son turned to me and said, “Hey, Mom! It’s Friday evening! Where’s the i-Pad?”, my child’s father said, “No need…” and pulled out a brand new one.

Humph …

My Husband May Be Turning Into a Vegan Activist

Well, *there’s* a sentence I never thought I’d write…

So, technically my husband is not actually a vegan (he has yet to give up butter or the occasional pizza), and perhaps activist is a bit hyperbolic (although his co-workers might disagree) …

But before I explain what’s happened with my husband, I think a little background is in order:

Our 19 year-old daughter has been a vegetarian — off and on — for about eight years now. She declared her vegetarianism — without preamble, without any hint of a warning — just before her twelfth birthday. We were camping and my husband had just set a barbecued pork chop onto her plate when she suddenly pushed the plate away and said, “I don’t want to eat this; I want to be a vegetarian.”

So, of course — as any parents would do — my husband and I questioned her on it. Isn’t this rather out of the blue? we asked.

But no, apparently not. Apparently, it was something she had been thinking of for quite some time*, and because of that it didn’t even occur to us that it was something we could, or should, be talking her out of.

(I do confess that when, a few short months later, our daughter’s politically- and socially-active social studies teacher showed her class the documentary Food, Inc (much to the chagrin of many parents) and one of her best friends went home and told her parents that she too wanted to become a vegetarian, and her parents simply said, Oh no, you’re NOT! … I felt slightly duped. Did YOU know, I asked my husband, that we could simply have said “No”?!?!)

Has this last paragraph left you with the impression that I was less-than-happy with her supposedly well-thought-out stance?

Yes, I admit to a fair amount of grumbling:

What’s she going to eat when we have chicken?! What about the pasta sauce?! And why am I the one now stuck cooking (cough*heating*cough) TWO meals?!

But, ah … the beauty that occasionally comes with hindsight … ! Looking back on it now, I’m extraordinarily glad that we didn’t talk her out of it, because although our daughter’s position was tempered by a short period during which she acquiesced slightly and ate organic, free-range meat and chicken, her vegetarianism has meant several things to our family:

  • It forced me to become a better cook (although I confess to a fair amount of *heating* until the year I gave up processed food):http://greengreyandgezellig.com/?p=483
  • Her stance influenced her younger brother, who also turned vegetarian for a time, and who, to this day, remains very thoughtful about the food he eats.
  • Our youngest son has — from a very young age — been exposed to (and eats!) a wide variety of foods which he claims his friends’ parents would never dream of setting on the table**.
  • It further heightened my already-strong interest in reading about nutrition and health, which has resulted in a healthier and more varied diet than we would have had otherwise, and we have all slowly moved along with her to what has become, in the last couple of years, a nearly-completely vegetarian diet.
  • It has likely halted what we’ve always imagined to be my husband’s genetic “fate”: a predisposition that would lead inexorably towards weight gain and chronic disease.

And this is where we return to my husband and the whole vegan-esque activist thing …

My husband has recently done two things (and by that, I mean he has done them independently; he has not just watched me do them and then listened to my take on things):

  1. He’s read How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease, by Dr. Michael Greger, the medical doctor who runs the website nutritionfacts.org. This is a two-part book which deals with both the scientific evidence which lies behind the top fifteen causes of death in the U.S., as well as the foods*** which have been shown to prevent these diseases. It’s well-written and very accessible; my husband, who has a strong technical background, but is completely unversed in biological matters, has found it to be a fascinating read.
  2. He’s watched the documentary Cowspiracy. This is an eye-opening movie which does two things: firstly, it illustrates the enormous and wide-ranging effects animal agriculture has on the Earth, from deforestation to toxic run-off to dead zones in oceans to methane production to the mis-use of antibiotics to climate change; and secondly, it highlights the failure of environmental organizations to acknowledge the elephant in the room that is agribusiness.

Now, although my husband has compelling personal reasons to be galvanized by what he’s read and watched, it’s struck me that this book and this film provide a powerful wake-up call even to those without those compelling personal reasons; that if ever there were reasons to experiment with Meatless Mondays, to become a weekday vegetarian, or to *gasp* go whole hog (pun intended) and do one’s darnedest to become a vegan, well, these two things in concert would be IT, because the evidence is powerful: what’s good for our health is also good for the planet’s health.


*“…quite some time…” Ha! Our daughter recently confessed that it actually wasn’t something she had thought about prior to that fateful supper; she just figured we would be less likely to talk her out of it if we felt it was a decision she had conscientiously arrived at. What a stinker….

**Does it sound like our ten year-old son is ecstatic about this arrangement? He’s not. If he had his way I would be serving Kraft Dinner (macaroni and cheese) every. single. meal. But hey, we’re not zealots! He had a hot dog just last week when we went to a hockey game.

***Greger’s book promotes a whole food plant-based diet: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds, with little to no ultra-processed foods.

Kingston and Kondo and Seeing Stuff

There once was a woman who thought about stuff

A constant refrain which made her life tough

The treasures, the dross

To keep or to toss

Indecisive and waffling, enough was enough!

So … hmmm …

I’m fairly certain that limericks are pretty much inexcusable. All I can say is that this is what happens when someone (Sarah 🙂 ) points out that I started the year with a haiku and followed with a pun … does that sound like a dare to anyone else?

Moving right along —

I’m at least six months — perhaps even a year — late to this party …

Nevertheless …

After being on the library’s waiting list since July, I *finally* — in November —read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.

Although I am decidedly not a fan of self-help books, I do have a bit of a weakness for books that discuss “stuff”, a fascination which began many years ago, when I happened upon Karen Kingston’s Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui.

Originally published in Great Britain in 1998; this is a copy of the first U.S. edition published in 1999.

When I first read this book I was a mother to two very young children. I was struggling just a bit with day-to-day life, and Kingston’s claim that clutter could cause a person to feel anxious came as an Aha! lightbulb-revelation. Now, Kingston’s writings aren’t perfect — her tone is a bit self-congratulatory, there’s a fair amount of woo to get past, and there’s a chapter on colon cleansing (yes, you read that right!) which likely makes some people squeamish — but it is a book that has, for me, stood the test of time. Some of Kingston’s words — these, for example:

You are connected to everything you own by fine strands of energy

— resonate just as strongly with me today as they did when I first read the book, even if I do have to take what she means literally in a strictly figurative sense.

So when the buzz began about Marie Kondo’s tidying book, I was fairly anxious to read it.

(But clearly not *so* anxious that I was willing to spend $15 in order to buy it!)

To begin with, I have to say I feel a fair measure of pity for Ms. Kondo. She clearly had childhood issues, which I, unfortunately, can relate to. As a child, I too, felt the comfort that could come from setting physical objects to rights, and would often come home from school and embark on tasks such as the completely voluntary — unasked-for, even — spring cleaning of my mother’s spice cupboard. I would at this point say, Pot? Meet Kettle… but the young Ms. Kondo was WAY more obsessed about it than I ever was. (So … hmmm … Spoon? Meet Kettle … ?)

Empathy aside, this book has left me feeling very conflicted, and as much as I don’t want to say it —

(if you can’t say anything kind, don’t say anything at all...)

— I had a really hard time liking this woman. I know it would be unfair of me not to acknowledge that her cautionary tales — getting rid of other people’s stuff, and guilting siblings into taking her cast-off belongings — were part of her early practices, and that in telling us about them she is merely painting a picture of what not to do, that she doesn’t do them now. But still… Even when she was an adult, and already working in a professional capacity, her judgement seemed a bit off: telling a client she could tidy up by offloading stuff to her mother’s house for indefinite storage? Quite honestly, the word spoiled comes to mind, a descriptor that struck me as befitting both her and her clients.

I also got bogged down in semantics: the use of the term “garbage” when referring to the stuff that she’s encouraging people to get rid of. Are her clients actually throwing everything that doesn’t spark joy into the dump? Are there no charity or thrift stores in Japan?

On the flip side, her advice to use the boxes and bins one already has kicking around the house was a breath of fresh air, and her folding methods are probably bang-on: my ten year-old son’s drawer is still neat and tidy, months after I re-organized it and file-folded his t-shirts. And, her assessment of professional organizers as hoarders? Yes, thank-you, Ms. Kondo: there’s a bit of truth you don’t often hear.

Kondo’s claim-to-fame is, of course, the whole sparking joy thing … and to that I say, okay, sure, yes, in an ideal world, we would and should all live surrounded by only those things that we love, by only those things that spark joy. But … I can’t help feeling this is such a privileged, upper-middle class, first-world, consumeristic metre-stick by which to measure our belongings.

In the first place, it’s a method that really only works for those people who have both the time and the money to assess and possibly replace each and every object which doesn’t make the cut.

And in the second place, while I can see how joy could be a very useful determiner for clothing, say, or for books, or items of decor, isn’t joy rather a silly way to assess* a garlic press or a spatula or a wrench? Surely, in and amongst our belongings there’s room for pure function? Whatever happened to utility and making-do and deciding to live with good-enough? I would argue there’s a certain beauty to be found in all that, as well as in the ability (or determination) to say, Yeah, it doesn’t spark joy, but who the hell cares? I’ll seek my joy elsewhere, thank you very much.

(Are you thinking, methinks the lady doth protest too much about this whole joy-sparking thing? If so, you’d be right. The fact is, I want a nice home just as much as the next person, and I actually have a very finely-tuned aesthetic sense: I can immediately see what I love, what I don’t, what “goes” with what, and how things could be improved … in other words, I see all the stuff; I care about all the stuff … but the thing is, I don’t want to!).

Sigh.

Lastly, there’s the part of the book where (according to Goodreads reviews) she seems to lose a lot of people: her propensity to anthropomorphize objects, and to attach feelings to stuff. She even goes so far as to thank things for their service!

Oh. My. Gosh.

That’s just crazytalk!

I mean …

Um …

Gulp … yes, well …

As completely whackadoodle as it sounds, I have to confess this is a concept I *totally* get.

Because — as a person who sees all the stuff — I have, on numerous occasions, thanked inanimate objects for their service.

There was a stove, for example. A pair of sandals. A blanket.

And then there was a bowl, the smallest of a set of three I purchased just before my husband and I got married 25 years ago:

And then there were two …

These bowls were the first “household” item I bought, and if ever a set of mixing bowls could spark joy, then my goodness, it was these. Made in Portugal, purchased at a delightful little kitchen shop, the perfect sizes for all my needs … So when the smallest one broke a dozen-or-so years ago, I nearly cried. And I distinctly remember, as I placed the pieces in the garbage, saying the words out loud: Thank you, Small Blue Bowl; you were a good bowl, and I’m really going to miss you.

Ridiculous?

Perhaps.

But I wonder if, in our consumeristic and disposable — and warming — world, this is actually part of the solution.

Maybe we should all be thanking our stuff for the service it provides. Not because, as Ms. Kondo suggests, our stuff is capable of emotion and will have hurt feelings if we don’t acknowledge its hard work, but rather because perhaps, by taking that small action, we would all start to really and truly see the objects in our lives. And perhaps, if we all actually saw the objects in our lives, we’d also be forced to acknowledge the fact that stuff isn’t made from thin air, and that it doesn’t just miraculously appear on store shelves for us to buy buy buy without thought.

Like these Christmas crackers, making a curtain call from my last post:

Hey, did I already mention that these Christmas crackers travelled 14,000 freaking km (9000 miles) to get to Ontario?!

I wonder … were any of the people who purchased — or merely had the pleasure of pulling apart — these Christmas crackers *actually* thankful for their hat, their joke, and their unique gift (and their 30-odd seconds of fun)?

Maybe Marie Kondo is onto something with her thanking shtick.


*Apparently, Kondo’s second book (Spark Joy: An Illustrated Master Class on the Art of Organizing and Tidying Up) addresses the inherent problem that comes when using joy as a determiner to assess things that are utilitarian in nature. Sarah, who has read the new book, points out that “… Kondo acknowledges her ridiculousness. It’s a big part of her insight about finding joy in what’s useful (a really important principle, but one that I think could be more explicitly stated in the book)”. I wonder whether those fans who have followed her methods to a T will now be royally ticked off as they re-purchase tools they’ve summarily tossed. I will have to wait approximately six months to read this for myself; I’m number 11 on the library’s waiting list.