Tuesday, February 28, 2012

the trees in my yard

Today I tried to make friends with my backyard. When we moved here it was beautifully landscaped, although by someone else's idea of beauty. It was full of exotic cultivars with blooms so big the puny stalks needed crutches to hold them up. The cultivars are still there, at least the ones who survived my refusal to water the softies. (Before we moved here, I was all about native plant gardening.) I haven't done a thing with the yard to make it more to my taste because I've refused to believe we're staying here.

Anyways, today was sunny and mild. Yesterday's crazy wind was gone, so I put the baby in the sling and hung out with Eldest for a bit.

I've gotten it into my head that I want to try making maple syrup. I know we have maple trees in my backyard but I haven't troubled myself to pay attention to exactly which ones are the maples. Last week Eldest gathered some old leaves that didn't get raked last fall, and we were able to figure out (from a book I found on one of my recent obsessive thrift store trips - yay!) that we have either sugar maples or Norway maples somewhere in the yard.

Unfortunately the book doesn't have great information about identifying trees in the winter. I did some googling and the bark seems to be a key. So today I studied the bark of each of the six big trees in turn. But honestly they all looked the same to me. And I studied the twig branching patterns way up in the sky, and every time I saw opposite branching, I was all Aha! A Maple! And then I'd see some alternate branching. And then when I saw a lot of alternate branching and was all Aha! Not Maple! Then I'd see some opposite branching. So I'm not much further ahead. I met a landscape architect in the neighbourhood last fall, so I'm hoping maybe she can help.

The one thing that makes me hesitate is that sugar maples are very vulnerable, especially in cities. This organization (which looks wonderful btw) actually makes it their policy to only tap Norway maples. It takes more Norway sap to make syrup than sugar maple sap but Norways are well adapted to the city.

So I may not have conclusively identified the trees in my yard, but I did begin to make friends with the place, at least to observe it.

And while I'm on the subject, check out this video. The message is grave but I find the woman so charming. I love that she just took this work on herself, at age 61, because it was important to her.

Monday, February 27, 2012

blog jam

Ugh. I have all these posts I want to write, all these thoughts I want to explore and connect, and they're all jumbled and jammed up in my throat. Or somewhere. Every night after the kids are in bed, I *could* write a post, but by that time the words or the thoughts or the urgency or the coherence have all disappeared.

I've been doing quite a bit of reading lately. Mostly related to homeschooling and self-sufficiency, and I'd love to blog about it. But these changes that I'm trying to nurture... I don't know. It feels like a single wee seedling and I need to keep it under glass until it gets a bit stronger. Although I'm comfortable with our decision to start by trying homeschooling, this whole giving-myself-permission-to-make-a-mistake-so-I-can-dive-into-the-unknown thing is pretty new territory for me, and it feels like one bitter gust could destroy it.

And there are other things piling up too. My photography is at a total standstill. The last several shoots I've tried to schedule have had to be cancelled mostly due to the baby's illness, but sometimes to the subject's illness. I haven't even been going out for walks, because the baby doesn't much care for the stroller, I worry about falling with him in the sling, and I wouldn't want to carry my heavy camera AND the baby anyways.

I'm on an elimination diet that means not only do I have to make everything I eat from scratch (which I've been pretty much doing for the last two months anyways because I was off dairy and soy) but even a lot of my recipes I can't eat because they involve eggs, wheat, gluten, refined sugar, chocolate, corn or tomatoes. So I've had to spend time researching new recipes and trying them. And I can't even have a glass of wine with dinner or a handful of dairy-free chocolate chips after it to ease my pain.

It's day 10 now, and I'm not sure what to think about the baby's reaction. He IS interested in food way more than he ever was before and he's coughing less. And he hasn't pooped in two days now but his poops haven't really changed. He still has a rash, and he's actually grumpier. He's gone back to hating the car like he did when he was 2 and 3 months old. A fact that has likely contributed to my recent isolation, since I've only been leaving the house to take Eldest to school and pick him up or buy more food.

Last night I asked my husband if maybe we could watch a movie together or something, but it was already 9 pm and he was really into a new e-book. And I was find with that, even though I was feeling kind of jangly and anxious and in need of grown-up conversation and company. Today Eldest is at school, and I could easily get together with a friend, but I can't really think of anyone to ask at such short notice. I could probably even get by with a conversation with my mom but she's in China for another few weeks so a phone call is not an option. Never mind the 14-hour time difference. Our real-life community, if you can even call it that, is so tiny it's almost like it doesn't exist. These moments when I feel vulnerable and overwhelmed are when I really notice. If the chicken I roasted last night felled us with salmonella, there is nobody I could call for help with even the smallest task. Talk about vulnerable.

One of the reasons I want to make a bunch of changes is to have time for community, to nurture friendships. But just having time isn't the only ingredient you need for good friendships. Neither is common values or liking each other. I'm realizing you also need a vacancy, and that's really a matter of luck. Or fate. I've got several people in town I'd like to develop friendships with, people I think like me too, but I'm pretty sure they're full up with friends.

Ugh. This has totally become a woe is me post, which is not what I was intending. Life really isn't that bad at all. It's just been a rough morning. We've been late for school every school day this year, and I really really hate being late. It makes me feel all squidgy and uncomfortable inside. Usually, I deal with this by never being late. Until recently I was able to manage things enough to be punctual for the stuff that matters to me. (And although school doesn't exactly matter to me, I hate signing in every day at the office. And I hate disrupting the class. I'm sure it's hard enough to get 20 four, five and six-year-olds to pay attention at the same time without someone else suddenly walking into class with a baby to boot.) But since we all started getting sick the mornings are just shot.

Things have been improving, but this morning we were all grumpy, especially the baby who was coughing and gagging more than in several days and pretty much didn't want to be put down. And me, whose tea brewed too long and nearly sent me into a panic attack. And Eldest, who was probably mostly responding to my grumpiness and a little bit of his own worries about jumping into the unknown of homeschooling (today is his second last day at school. Note to self: remember to read hims Scaredy Squirrel tonight). And my husband, who was out of coffee. By the time we got to school, I was nearly in tears feeling all incompetent and evil. And poor Eldest nearly was too.

So it's been a rough morning, and that can really mess with my perspective. So far I've found 2012 hard. But I've also had many moments of pure contentedness. Of rightness. I will feel those again, I am sure.

I don't know whether to hit publish on this post, because it feels awfully irrelevant, but maybe by publishing I can start to ease the blog jam and in a few posts be coherent again.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

emergency handmade V-day cards and other things

I've never been a big fan of Valentine's Day. Probably because of the 22 years of V-Days I was single on until I met my husband. It is more fun since Eldest was born, but I'm still just a curmudgeon who can't stand the Hallmark's angle.

Eldest's birthday party was supposed to be last Sunday but he came down with a miserable fever on the day, and when I wondered out loud if we should cancel, he jumped on the opportunity. "Yes, let's not have it today." That's when I knew he was really unwell.

So we had it today. And as the last kid left, his dad mentioned that the kids' teacher had asked him to let us know that tomorrow is red, white and pink day for the Valentine's celebration. Oh yeah. At 4 pm on Sunday afternoon, I was reminded that we needed to give Valentines to 18 kids the next day. I had actually remembered earlier when I left for the grocery store, and I was really tempted to just buy some at the store. But I forgot when I was there.

So we didn't have much choice in the handmade department. I was thinking we'd cut heart shapes and glue them onto construction paper. But when I thought about how long the glue would take to dry and trying to get Eldest to write his name on every one AFTER that, I didn't think that would happen. Then inspiration struck. I could use a pen to draw heart shapes and write the recipient's name and Eldest could colour them in and sign his name. No glue drying time required.

I have to say, I'm pretty impressed. I think they look awesome, and Eldest did all his part in one sitting. Less than an hour, I'm guessing.





I did help him with some of the colouring in, because we didn't have time to take a break. I had a blast colouring outside the lines.

* * *

A similar incident happened last weekend, when we realized we were out of wrapping paper at about 10 pm Saturday night. I was nursing the baby, so my husband took care of business. He did such a delightful job, I never want to buy wrapping paper again.


Monday, February 6, 2012

On teaching my child about Apartheid

When Eldest had just turned four, we took a trip to South Africa to visit my father-in-law and other aunts and uncles. Before the trip, we got some books about South Africa from the library. I read most of them to Eldest, but I couldn't bring myself to read the pages about Apartheid. I just didn't want my child to know yet how awful human beings could be. So I didn't say anything.

We still haven't told him about Apartheid, two years later. Until today.

Yesterday, Eldest's Nana gave him a copy of Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a picture book version of Mandela's biography. He was too busy with other, flashier presents to notice it yesterday, but today at lunch I reminded him of it. I told him about Nelson Mandela, that he is an amazing South African. I told him about the unfair laws under Apartheid, and how Mandela and others were sent to jail for fighting against those laws.

His eyes nearly bugged out at this. To Eldest, jail is where bad guys go. To hear that somebody good could be sent to jail was, I'm sure, a head trip for him. So we talked about how good and bad can sometimes be hard to figure out. Eventually, we got to the part where Mandela was released (the same year my husband came to Canada with his mother) and the first democratic election and how most people voted for Mandela (including my husband, from here in Canada).

We also had to go over the fact that Africa is not a country but a continent with about 50 countries, one of which is South Africa. (Eldest was quick to say, "No wonder [his friend whose family is from Ghana] lives here so I made sure to emphasize that not all African countries had such unfair laws.) And we talked about democracy too.

As we read the book, I remembered - and told Eldest - that my husband's grandfather owned or ran (or both?) one of the schools Mandela went to as a child in the Eastern Cape. When we got to the part about Mandela marrying Winnie, I told Eldest I would show him the photo of my husband and I with her in Soweto - a totally chance encounter. When Mandela was sent to Robben Island, I told him I'd show him the photos we took there before Eldest was born.

One spread was especially difficult, about the Sharpeville Massacre. I didn't want to read it, but when I told Eldest I didn't want to read it to him, he insisted. And he'd already seen the picture, so I thought not knowing the words might scare him more. So I read it. Right down to the part where the Police, who to Eldest are always Good, opened fire on unarmed people who were protesting the pass book laws. They killed 69 people.

At times I nearly cried, imagining Eldest's experience of hearing this story. Like the details about Mandela's jail cell at Robben Island and his solitary confinement for reading a newspaper one of the guards left behind. Or when Mandela got released, after his hair turned gray, and he got to see his grandchildren. Twenty-seven years is a very long time.

It occurred to me that no other one-day-away-from-six-year-olds in Canada probably learn about Apartheid. I worried it would upset him too much, that I was damaging him. But this is part of his family history, kind of. And then I thought about the six-year-old black children under Apartheid, who were forced to learn first-hand about Apartheid and human cruelty. I don't know if it was right or wrong to tell him this now; I never will.

But after we read the book, we looked at the photos I mentioned, and we listened to some South African music from the Amandla! soundtrack, which as it happens, I'd just started listening to in the car again since this drive. I've actually been singing this song for weeks. The video I've attempted to embed below of Hugh Masakela singing "Bring Back Nelson Mandela" in 1987 when Mandela was still in jail is worth the watch.

So this is home/unschooling. In one hour we covered history, geography, politics, social justice and music. It was relevant and meaningful to his own interests, family and life experiences (he's been to SA twice already), so I suspect he will retain it better than weeks of dry grade 7 desk work. Granted, the subject matter is advanced, but he was utterly engaged. Every time I asked if we wanted to take a break from the book, he was adamant that he wanted to keep going. I remember doing an independent project on South Africa in grade 7 or 8. But all I can remember from it are that Johannesburg is on a plateau and they mine diamonds and gold. This is such a gross oversimplification of a beautiful and complex country. I also remember learning the term Apartheid, but it was such a dry description in the encyclopedia I was using that it never occurred to me to imagine what one person's experience might be like under that system. Today, Eldest imagined at least two versions of what that experience might be like -- Mandela's from the book, and his own father's experience as a privileged white person - and also his grandparents and what they did or didn't do to support the struggle for freedom.

I still worry about the effect of stripping the safe but false binaries from his world so young. But I think about that six-year-old child whose world was restricted by Apartheid, and I remember that we can't shelter our children from all the world's evils.

Edited to add:
Apparently it was actually my husband's great grandfather who ran one of the schools Mandela attended. And legend has it that he was the first white person Mandela ever shook hands with.