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I'm not really into Lent

I'm not really into Lent.

Winter is a hard time of year for me as it is and I don't need penance, fasting, and deprivation on top of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

In this post, I explained that I am part of an evangelical gathering of believers who worship in a very modern, culturally-relevant way, but that as an individual I rely on more contemplative and traditional practices from varying faith traditions to connect with God.

Observing Lent falls into the personal practice category. Although a world-wide body of believers is in that space right now, the community of believers I belong to (not in "membership", but in relationship) is not. Therefore, it's easy for me to heartily embrace Advent but duck out of Lent, according to my own needs, as there is no accountability around me, no community pressure, for better or worse.

this photo is from a short working vacation
we took to the Gaspe Peninsula the end of February,
where we stayed at our friend's chalet

I don't like pressure, obligation or holier-than-thou attitudes around spiritual practices and I made a conscious choice, many years ago, to reject that model of faithfulness. Freedom is my rally cry of faith.

That being true, there is something to be said about how a culture - a family culture, church culture, societal culture - can encourage an individual, not by pressure (the evidence of faith in self, not God) but by providing structures and supports, a framework that the individual can lean upon.

This year I am observing Lent, or my version of it. Joining in the worldwide body of believers who are doing likewise.

Considering my aversion to unnecessary discomfort during late winter, it's interesting how this came about.

I have anxiety and one of the ways anxiety affects me is that it muddies the waters of truth, making it difficult for me to discern the right path. And when I make mental or emotional space for lies about my identity, or the present reality, this can set me on a mental trajectory or chute that takes me from the starting point of discomfort, pain, or confusion (normal things) to "the world is ending" catastrophic thinking.

What this means is that if I'm in an anxiety-prone period of life or season I can be easily overwhelmed and derailed by outside messages and agendas.

This is why I have to limit the kinds of media I consume during certain life periods, and in general. I can go from 0 to overwhelm in record speed.

Outside messages and agendas come at me from all over the place. I think you probably can relate. We live in world of marketing and media. And as I've analyzed why my anxiety has bubbled to surface of my life now, in my late thirties and early forties, I think the pressure and prevalence of media (all forms) in my life is part of the picture, along with some serious insecurity issues triggered by longish periods of transition and perceived instability. As a Enneagram type 6 I am going to struggle with anxiety. The issue is not if, but how.

I am weary of being marketed to. (And everyone markets these days. Church's market, for heaven's sake.) I am weary of fighting against outside agendas and messages. Not all of these messages are bad, some are very good and necessary for me to hear but, the sheer number of them in my life makes it hard to discern truth. Even the fact that the waters are muddied so I can't find that clear water of truth easily, makes me anxious. My soul is weary of this battle - the vigilance required to discern truth (and how that tires me out) and the inevitable anxiety-response when I am not vigilant. I am sick of it. I am sick with it.

When I encounter people trying to sell me on their message, whether it's a sermon, a Facebook share, an impassioned opinion, or a cleverly written blog post, I wonder if they understand what it's like to experience anxiety in the context of that message. And what especially sickens and demoralizes me is that some messages are engineered and delivered with exact precision to trigger my anxiety - fear and scarcity-based marketing.

I have to be cautious, even with the benign messages, even when I'm fairly certain the intentions of the other person are not to manipulate me into action.

"Do you understand what I'm going through inside right now to filter what you're saying through what I know to be true for me. Do you understand the effort it takes for me to stay open to hear you while still guarding myself against an anxious response to this message?"

Guarding myself, while still remaining open. What a draining effort.

It's taken me a while to understand what's been going on, to give words and meaning to the scary sensations I feel. It's been a journey.

In January, while journaling one morning, laying out all my angst in this regard - what do I do with everyone else's agendas and ideas, the things people want me to get on board with, to see as they see - the Spirit spoke to me.

God, help me. God helped me.

Here's what I heard and wrote down: Be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in your heart.

Now, this may not have comforted others, but it provided immediate comfort to me because I trust the Holy Spirit. I have personal, familial, and spiritual history that I can lean on in this regard. Not everyone does, and some people may have baggage around this, but this was a message for me that made sense and gave me a place to stand, for the moment at least.

What came to me immediately was relief, release. I can do this. I can be open to the work of the Spirit. This feels safe for me.

That got me through that day. As the week progressed and January became February I felt it impressed upon my heart to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart.

If my one directive here is to be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart - heart in the Hebrew sense of the word as the seat of my intellect and my emotions, the center of my being - I need to know what I'm looking for as the manifestation and movement of the Holy Spirit.

So I set out to do a Bible study of the Spirit.

Last year, well before January's impression be open to the work of the Holy Spirit in my heart, I was meditating on this passage of scripture:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
I Cor 2:12

It's something I need constant reminding of so I wrote it on a card and posted it to my inspiration board above my desk and when the year was over and I cleared the board for new inspiration, I pasted the card into my 2016 Journal as a remembrance of God's word for me.

The Spirit of God lives in me.

So if the Spirit lives in me, as the Bible tells me so, and I am to be open to the work of the Spirit in my heart (the center of my being), this means I can follow an inner compass, which is the Spirit, as I navigate my way through the world. As I filter the messages, media, and marketing, I can trust my inner-self of God's spirit in me, to find the right response to such things. This is the framework, the safe place, the standard I can use to discern every other message in my life.

I'm currently studying the scriptures about the Spirit to know how I can recognize the Spirit in me. How does the Spirit lead? What does the Spirit point us to, or rather who does the Spirit point us to? How will I recognize the Holy Spirit? What will it look like for the Spirit to move in me? How does the Spirit speak? I need to know what I can trust, what will be the standard for me.

This is how and why I was led to observe Lent this year. I felt the Spirit gently guiding me this way, inviting me, and I said yes.

This is the reason I haven't published anything to the blog for weeks because I feel the Spirit asking me to let go of the practice and discipline of blogging for Lent (or a modified Lent, the month of March), and to instead spend that time, which is the early morning hours (before 9 am) in scripture, prayer, and journalling. And lest this sounds too disciplined, I'm also sleeping in some days because... freedom from striving.

This list is from Pilgrim Year

A couple years ago my self-confidence was severely undermined by a disconnect from true self and the resulting anxiety, burn-out, and breakdown from that disconnect. This loss of confidence affected my blogging. On the positive side of things, I believe my writing has developed a depth of experience and honesty that it never had before. However, as I dig for the beauty, truth/honesty, and kindness to share from my experiences, writing takes a long time; nothing comes fast, quick, or easy. My posts are fewer and longer.

My blog readership dropped, maybe because of the change in writing, change in the content (less how-to homeschool, how-to make soap), and because I'm just not into marketing myself.

After I lost my confidence I had no vision except to find my footing, to find self and be true to her.

This has started to happen, slowly. It's a two steps forward, one step back kind of movement.

I have a re-growing, and hopefully true to self, ambition for my writing and direction for my blog.

Stepping aside from writing for a time, laying down my striving towards these aims while also accepting past losses, is an act of trust, an act of release. I'm trusting the Spirit to steward and lead this next stage of my writing.

Part of me is deeply uncomfortable sharing this because I am suspicious when people are public about their lenten sacrifices and about lenten practices in general. I often wonder, what is the agenda behind sharing such things?

Obedience, sacrifice, confession, repentance these are deeply personal spiritual practices, best shared in a trusted community. Unfortunately these practices and postures of the heart can become yokes that people are pressured into bearing. But condemnation, fear of failure, inadequacy is not how the Spirit moves us into spiritual discipline.

Fear is not of the Spirit, period. The Spirit invites, and sometimes persists in the inviting, but never coerces. And we have complete free will in how we respond. And we are loved regardless and we stand free of condemnation, regardless.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
II Cor 3:17

So, that's what's going on. And that is why, after this post, you probably won't see another post till April.

My new blog is almost ready to roll out and I may interrupt this break to make that announcement. That is a project set in motion months and months ago and is not something I feel called to set aside right now as it is a joint endeavour with Damien and is not about my morning writing time, but a different part of blogging all together - "the platform" and structure that supports and publishes the writing.

Before I started this blogging fast I spent over a week writing a piece that just wouldn't ring true and so it never did get published, so it's been really quiet here for almost a month and I wanted you to know that this quiet is not because I'm laid low with SAD or anxiety, though some days I am fighting these for all I'm worth.

I'm using Pilgrim Year as my reading guide for Lent. And something I've gleaned from those readings is the re-orient and re-order intention and purpose for a Lenten fast.

And this is what I want in my life right now. A re-ordering of desires, a re-orienting of myself towards a life led by the Spirit.

I could write so much more about this time but I think that would move me beyond the ken of what I'm supposed to share right now. I have given myself some hours this weekend to write this update and now I'm done.

Love, Truth and Freedom, friends.

I'll be back soon.

Treating my anxiety like an injury or illness

This is a story about managing anxiety and I hope as you read through it you will glean helpful tips, though it's not written as a "tip" post. If you are seeking targeted and specific help in dealing with anxiety I have a resource at the end of this post, that I highly recommend. You can skip ahead to it right now if you need. Go ahead, I'm not offended.

You might also appreciate A personal experience with anxiety and positive solutions, a post I wrote last year.

Last winter my daughter hurt her wrists snowboarding.

When you're learning to snowboard you fall on your back end, a lot. My daughter injured her wrists from the repetitive action of bracing herself, on her frequent falls.

Wrist guards would have been beneficial right from the start, but we didn't know. This didn't happen to our son when he learned to snowboard, a few years earlier, so we weren't exactly "prepared" for it.

She iced and compressed, applied arnica cream, and with rest, her wrists were less sore so we thought it might "go away" on its own.

As winter gave way to spring and spring gave way to summer her wrists improved, and she would only experience mild pain with certain activities.

Then the beginning of this New Year Brienne re-injured her wrist skating. And that was our "this isn't going away on its own" wake-up call.

We got up early on a Saturday morning, so we could wait for two hours to see a doctor. He ordered x-rays (no fracture) and did a basic assessment that ruled out serious injury. He recommended physiotherapy, which has an approximate two year waiting list in the health care system. Or, we pay out-of-pocket for private physiotherapy and have immediate access.

We can't afford out-of-pocket physiotherapy right now, and waiting two years is not an option either, so we started Brienne with a mobility exercise program under Damien's direction. And my mom sent an essential oil for muscle repair.

And Brienne rested her wrists for the month of January. No skating (she's still too unsteady on her skates and if she falls she will likely strain her wrists). No snowboarding. Very limited co-op gym class activity.

We took an offensive strategy to treat the problem. And as parents we enforced more rest and recovery time. Brienne has a hard time slowing herself down.

As fascinating as this all is, this post isn't really a story about my daughter's injured wrists. It's about anxiety.

It's easier to talk about physical illness than it is to talk about mental illness and mental struggle.

I don't like to say I have a mental illness. I may be in denial but I look at my anxiety as a struggle and a weakness, a propensity to a certain type of thinking and thought patterns. It's my body, my health, I can call it what I like.

Whatever you want to call it, it's a struggle I have.

And I do better with this struggle when I treat my anxiety in the same way I approach my daughter's injured wrists, with a plan of action.

Firstly, there is no shame that Brienne hurt her wrists learning to snowboard and her brother didn't. Not everybody's the same. There is no shame that I have anxiety.

While Brienne is recovering and incrementally increasing mobility and strength in her wrists she has to abstain from certain activities, and she will have to actively engage in others, eg: specific exercises.

As someone who struggles with anxiety I will go crazy (it feels like I'm falling off the edge of clear thinking) if I don't abstain from certain things. And while I carefully watch what I allow in my life, I must also actively work on strengthening my internal responses and defences against anxiety.

A wrist injury presents an opportunity to pay attention to patterns of motion. To notice activities that cause pain and others that heal and strengthen. It's a wake-up call.

My struggle with anxiety is somewhat similar.

Like recovering from an injury. I manage my anxiety with a combination of discernment, rest, and specific exercises.

Discernment is knowing who I am and building appropriate boundaries.

I find building boundaries to be especially tricky now that I am embedded in community and in a more intricate web of relationships than I have been for many years; marriage, teenaged children, homeschool co-op, and church. Knowing where to give and where to hold back, this takes a lot of wisdom, soul-searching, as well as trial and error.

I can't do certain things that other people feel called to do. I can't engage in missions that are not my own. I cannot take on burdens that aren't mine to bear. If I veer too much into any of these territories, anxiety screams like a warming alarm. Which is maybe part of its purpose in my life.

I have a lot of capacity and capabilities, in the same way my daughter has a lot of energy and interest in sports. I have to build boundaries in my life to protect myself from over-engagement in certain areas of my life - social media, how I manage my online communications, what I give to each of the communities to which I belong. I have personal boundaries around how much I can assist my children in meeting their goals, how much I can assist my husband. I am finite.

My children are growing and increasingly have to make decisions for themselves but one of my chief roles as mother has been to be a gatekeeper, discerning what to let into our home and into my children's lives.

I have to be my own gatekeeper. No one else is going to do this for me.

Rest is taking regular breaks in my body and mind.

My rest looks like skiing once a week (yes, this is incredibly restful and rejuvenating for me), at-home retreat days, and scheduling "unscheduled" time in my weeks. Keeping blocks of time open in which I will not schedule anything.

I build rest into my plans so that I can say no to the other things (almost all of them good) that would compete for that time. I need open spaces in my week to putter around my home, to read, take naps, sleep-in now and again, and make stuff.

You can call it scheduled downtime, margin, Sabbath - whatever you call it - I must honor my needs for rest, fun and relaxation. And say "not now" to some of my own competing desires (to be productive, to "finish", to fix all the wrongs in my realm) and the desires and expectations of other people.

My anxiety exercises are the myriad of self-care practices I engage in.

Some are mental; meditation, truth-seeking and truth-speaking. Retraining my "mind" muscles to respond differently to stressful stimuli. Others are physical; outdoor activities and physical movement, a happy light through winter, dietary supplements, herbal adaptogen remedies and teas, essential oils. Some are relational; showing up as is, having courage, speaking truthfully, accepting and giving unconditional love in my core relationships. Others are spiritual; prayer and journaling.

It's all related. Discernment and setting boundaries is a self-knowledge and self-care practice. And setting healthy boundaries enables rest. The point is, discernment, rest and exercise are key parts to how I manage my anxiety.

I don't like easy answers because there is no such thing to complex problems. So I'm not going to leave this post on a three point answer to anxiety.

I want to share another part of this story.

While Brienne was resting during the month of January our family continued to go skiing every week. At fourteen, Brienne is old enough to stay home by herself but she likes to be with us and would be lonely at home, so she came and sat in the lodge while the rest of us hit the slopes. She brought school work, books, and TV programs downloaded to her iPad.

She kept mostly occupied but it wasn't the best of times for her. I felt bad but there wasn't much I could do about it except pop into the lodge more often than usual to say hi. I could be present as often as my own needs would allow. (I have to ski for my own health and wellbeing.)

Brienne was with us but it was lonely for her. Not as lonely as being at home, but lonely and a bit boring.

My own struggle with anxiety is never boring but it is lonely. Which is part of why I'm writing about it here.

My anxiety makes it hard to trust myself, it makes it hard to discern what voices to listen to. And sometimes the measures I take to protect myself and build appropriate boundaries remove me from other people and from certain activities.

And I question myself, "why can't I feel at ease in this situation that others handle easily?", and "why must I think, question, and wrestle deeply with ideas, situations and circumstances that other people accept at face value?"

And because it is anxiety, I feel a little crazy sometimes. And some days it takes all I have to bring truth and light to that craziness. It's a fight, and I get tired of fighting. And it feels lonely, even when I'm in a crowd of people, maybe especially when I'm in a crowd of people.

If you struggle with anxiety you too might feel lonely. People generally don't talk about their anxiety or other mental struggles. And if they do, other people, well meaning but ignorant of the illness, can be dismissive, or worse, provide cliché answers.

I had a tough spell with anxiety through the first weeks of the New Year. It comes and goes for me like that. My last bad spell was in October. I had the chance to get together with a friend a couple weeks ago, a dear woman who also suffers from mental illness and "problematic thinking". We laughed at ourselves and our struggles (you have to laugh sometimes, it is pretty crazy some of the stuff we think). We cried. We prayed. We asked God to release us of this trial but also expressed our gratitude that we can help ease each other's burden because of our own experiences.

I felt a little less lonely. And so did she.

That same week another dear friend reached out to me in her own need and as these things turn out, I needed her as much as she needed me. Again, I felt a little less lonely in my struggle. But most of all I felt loved, regardless. I felt like I had people in my corner.

We don't have all the answers for each other. We share what works for us in our individual struggle. We know each other's craziness but we still believe in the best of one another, we hold each other in light and love. But even with all that (and what a gift all that is), each of us essentially fights a battle on our own.

This truth is very acute in the most intimate relationship in my life, my marriage.

As much as we love each other, share our bodies and our thoughts, share a faith and life vision, share core values and love for our children, we cannot fully inhabit the space of each other's personal struggles. We hold each other through them but each of us has our own battles we must fight, our own injuries and illnesses we must contend with.

I can never fully understand the struggles, temptations, and challenges my husband deals with. And he will never fully understand mine.

And sometimes that feels lonely (one of my core longings is to be known and understood), but in reality that is a loneliness shared by everyone. We each have a perennial battle to fight. We have unique injuries and illnesses that we hope to heal. This is one part of our "common core", our shared humanity.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.
(author disputed)

You might not know the exact battle but you can be sure, we are each fighting one.

I take no pleasure in other people's suffering, weaknesses and faults, but there is the comfort of knowing you are not alone. And as much as I am able (remember: boundaries) I have found that honest friendships that provide safe places to talk about my crazy are a balm to this loneliness. These friendships are precious and necessarily few as being this open with people is vulnerable and sacred.

After a month of rest our daughter is snowboarding and skating again. I'm so happy for her but also grateful I don't have to deal with the mommy guilt that tugs at me as I ski while she sits in the lodge.

I took my own kind of rest during January also. I extended compassion and kindness to myself during a time of struggle. There is no other helpful option for me in these periods. And it seems to me the deeper I allow compassion and kindness to root in my heart, for myself and for others, the slightly less difficult the struggle is and less lonely I feel in the valleys.

It's not gone. It's not cured. It's endured.

But it's also shared, in connection and conversation with friends. It's assuaged with exercises of body, mind, and spirit and an increasing discernment and understanding of my limits, a keen self-awareness of my own purposes and my very finite nature, a nurturing of my fragile/strong self with love, truth, and kindness.

Help for your anxiety

I want to tell you about a helpful resource for thinking about and dealing with anxiety. One of my favorite bloggers, Heather Caliri, has published a mini-course about anxiety called Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety.

If you struggle with anxiety, as I do, you know that sometimes the only thing you can really grab ahold of are the tiny ideas.

Heather's writing, in general, addresses emotional, mental and spiritual health and well-being. She writes a lot about anxiety and I find it really helpful.

Heather isn't selling anything, the course is absolutely free, but you do have to subscribe. (You can always unsubscribe if you don't like them.)

Heather says, "Let’s face this hard thing together, okay?"

I couldn't agree more.

I welcome your comments or private emails about your own struggles or experiences with anxiety. Therapies, exercises and self-care practices that work for you. I'd love to hear what you've gained through this struggle.

Here are a few of mine: compassion, deeper friendships, empathy, self-awareness, and tools to share with others.


A snowy Saturday in February (and the kids are growing up)

It's snowing this weekend. As I type this the air is thick with the flakes and I try to capture the magic with my camera but it never does the beauty justice.

I am (gratefully) way past the toddler stage of parenting and so instead of bundling little ones to go trundling and toppling through the snow, I am sitting right here, enjoying my Saturday morning cup of coffee, my tired teenagers still deep in sleep.

This is the most "open", unscheduled, at-home all day Saturday I've had since November. And I feel both giddy and deeply at-ease in the expanse of this day before me.

Early last month I wrote that I needed all of January to transition into the New Year. It was more like January and the first week of February.

It was a bit tricky to give myself this space and time while the world around me was marching forward with 2017 plans and purposes and the ubiquitous self-improvement projects. But it was worth the effort of holding space for this month-long transition, because come mid-February I'm not discouraged or exhausted by my New Year's efforts at "being better". Rather, by intentionally withdrawing from that fray and hype, by honoring a hibernate vibe, and being patient with myself and the slow progress of living, I'm better rooted in what my purposes are for this season and stage of life.

2017 is not "the" year I will conquer the clutter, overcome a perennial struggle, or achieve any great heights of financial freedom or self-expression. It will be a year, as every other year, of steady and slow progress, punctuated with beginnings and endings.

I see this year as a continuation of goals, purposes, callings, dreams, etc. of the previous year and previous years. My chief purpose of raising our kids, the job I set out to do eighteen years ago, remains the same but the little (and sometimes big) details in how I do that work change as the kids change, not with the flip of the calendar.

Great things will happen, I'm sure. New things and new directions are brewing, adventures and celebrations are being planned and executed. There will be accomplishments and things checked off my lists, while new items are added. I will not arrive at an end point but I will find myself further on the path.

It's almost the middle of February and I am nowhere near a winter breakdown. That is an "accomplishment", a self-improvement of sorts. I don't have any cabin fever or even winter angst. March is the month that carries a sense of foreboding for me. If things are going to go bad, that's when it's going to happen. But it hasn't gone really bad (where I'm crying for days on end and feel exhausted by the effort of life by 9 am) for three winters. But I know it could, so I watch with some vigilance for the signs of winter depression and do everything I can to bear up against such possibility.

Which is to say I ski. Oh, I ski and how I love it.

February is not a particularly beautiful month in my white, grey, and salted-sidewalks world. Maybe that's why people love Valentines Day so much, all those red hearts adding color to the drab.

I don't take a lot of photos this time of year. Of the couple hundred photos I took in the first seven days of February (yes, hundreds), seven of those were non-skiing photos. They were photos of Laurent's art.

I don't keep all the photos I take. I have a photo workflow which involves a lot of deleting. I also edit all my photos, and tag them with keywords so at any point in the future I can find photos with ease. It's just what I do.

But in February I do a whole lot less of that because I just don't take many photos. Except when it comes to skiing.

I've noticed in myself that the things I try to capture with photography are the things that are capturing my heart and/or enlivening my spirit. There might be a positive feedback loop involved here. When I intentionally look for beauty, I tend to notice it more.

Right now, my children are the throat-catching and heart-tugging beauty in my world. I guess that's been true for their whole lives.

My heart alternately soars with deep gratitude for the present moment while also feeling the stab of loss at their impended independence and separation from me. There isn't a scheduled date for that in our home, but it is the next stage. And in the same way I want to bear up against the possibility of winter depression, I want to bear up against the pain of this impeding change.

Celine has no plans to leave anytime soon and we are encouraging our children to stay close for post-secondary. It's their choice of course, but the financial help we can offer for the next stage of their life will be mostly of the room-and-board variety. It's why we moved to Montreal. By living in this great city full of amazing schools and in a province with heavily subsidized post-secondary education, we've positioned ourselves, in the way we are able, to help our children pursue post-homeschool studies, should they so choose.

Celine graduates from homeschooled high-school this spring. Finishing this stage of her education, getting all her documentation in order, helping her consider and narrow down her options (and providing a loving push as necessary) - this is the stuff of my life right now that consumes a lot of my mental mothering energies.

We are about to cross a major threshold with our firstborn, and that transition is probably "the" big thing that is happening for me this year, as a mother and a homeschooler. Actively homeschooling and bearing the responsibility of facilitating and overseeing the education of my oldest child is one of the things I will release this year.

I spend a part of every other week (I have a schedule) working on Celine's transcript and portfolio. There are regular meetings with Celine and Laurent about their plans and purposes and how we will help them meet those goals. And when there are no defined goals, we help dig to the place in their hearts and minds where the desires and interests are rooted and we work out how those interests would translate into goals. This is the how we homeschool and living this philosophy with teens is the most energetic part of the journey.

I'm freaked out a bit sometimes, but mostly I am exuberantly excited about this stage. I love homeschooling my high-schoolers. I have amazing kids. I wouldn't trade this time and effort for more money in the bank. I wouldn't trade it for more writing time (something that always feels in short supply). I wouldn't trade it for the career I am hoping to build once my homeschool career comes to an end.

Everything has a season. And this is my season of high energy and high activity with my teenagers.

My heart is full.

I am so thankful for our weekly skiing. It's our one day a week practice in which we continue, with the full and eager participation of our children, to stake a claim for family life, for having fun together, for enjoying winter. It is so worth all the effort and expense: the driving time, the gas, gear upgrades and making due with what we have. It's an investment in our family and our health.

It is the highlight of my week.

It's been a good ski season and I am so grateful for that. I was re-reading some of my posts from last winter. Last winter was hard in many respects. The skiing conditions weren't great. We had weeks and weeks of sickness.

It's probably the foil of last year that makes this year that much sweeter.

It's 11 am now and my fourteen year old, our youngest, has emerged from the cocoon of her bed. She's puttering around me in the kitchen, brewing herself a cup of black coffee; like mother, like daughter.

My boy, about to turn 16, is still sleeping, recovering no doubt from yesterday's full day of activity that didn't end till we got home at 11:30 pm. He was still gaming at 12:30 am, when I clicked off my Kindle and went to sleep. I have no idea when he went to bed, I do hope he will get a good ten hours of sleep before coming to for the day.

My oldest, seventeen, slept over at friend's house last night. I was the chauffeur responsible for transporting four chatty girls from co-op to the friend's house and I treated the girls to coffee at Starbucks enroute. The Starbucks was in a Chapters bookstore and so I found a table some way off from the girls to give them space. The sound of their incessant chatter and laughter, before they all dispersed to scour the bookshelves in silence (three of these girls are introverts), was more than worth the price of the lattes.

Celine's friend turned 18 this month and is celebrating with a dinner and swing dance party tonight. A gaggle of girls will be getting ready in a few hours for that party; doing hair, nails, and make-up in the fifties fashion.

Eighteen, it's coming for us soon. I am so happy for Celine's joy in having great fun with friends, but I am a little disappointed I'm won't be able to photograph her carefully planned and tailored outfit. Celine bought a skirt at a Montreal vintage boutique but did the final tailoring herself, of course.

Photographing my heart's joy and delight, it's what I do. But as my "delights" grow and move to independence, as they have experiences completely apart from me, in such healthy and beautiful ways, I guess I'll content myself with photographing the morning snow.

Missive from the edge

It took me a few years to find the consistency in my writing. To identify the thread or theme that held true as the tapestry of my written work continued to evolve and change.

As much I love the principles and (certain) practices of homemaking, as much as I love homeschooling my children (truly this has been a journey of love and discovery for me, it is one of my passions and callings), as much I love exploring my personality and personal growth, as much as I love being outdoors, traveling and adventuring, etc. the consistency is not in those subjects.

Indeed, I have not been able to build a blog brand in any one of those areas, though they are big parts of my life experience and knowledge.

What I've learned through 12 years of blogging is that the consistency in my writing is not in a topic or genre per se, but in the place my writing grows out of, the zone from which I am inspired to write.

The place where my boundaries are expanding, which I've also described as the edge of my growth curve, is where I write. This zone is both the fertile ground that inspires my writing but is also an inexorable progression, like the leading edge of a hot lava flow, that continues to propel me forward.

This is somewhat problematic for building consistent blog content. Unless the the moving edge of experience is the consistency.

When something related to homeschooling is my dominant growth edge, you'll see that in my writing. And as I cross boundaries in my homeschool journey - the beginning of elementary, elementary to middle, middle to high school - I tend to be inspired to write from those discovery zones. Lots is being stirred up there. I see the same trend in my writing as I've progressed through growth zones in homemaking and adventurous family living.

For the past two years the edge of my growth zone has been deep personal discovery, healing, and a spiritual re-awakening.

The edges of homeschooling, the edges of adventure, the edges of self and faith, the consistent thread through these changes and experiences is that what I write comes from that growth zone.

And now I find myself at another edge.

I am not where I was one year ago, two years ago. I've lived in the same apartment for 20 months (our longest term of residence in the last six years) but I am not the same person I was when I moved here, the summer of 2015, haunted and hounded by anxiety and insecurity.

These two beasts are a recurring theme in my life and my writing but I feel that in the last two years I have turned around and faced them, full-on (in fear and trembling, it's anxiety after all), but I have faced them.

I have named them. I have called them out of the shadows in my relationships. I have identified "the good side" to these tendencies (light and dark, we're all both) and I have grieved the pain and misdirection they have brought into my life.

I have learned so very many things about myself as I've faced these demons. And I've written through some of what I've learned here on the blog. This season of deep self-awareness and a quest for healing has been the edge of my growth.

I haven't arrived. I'm not finished in that healing or in my understanding of self and Spirit. In many ways, I've just begun. I'm so thankful for what I've learned at this early-midlife point about myself and others; for the insight, knowledge, love, and compassion I now carry with me. But I have so much more to learn, so much more to grow. Always.

I feel a shift in the wind, a fresh breeze is blowing. This wind started as a gentle breeze sometime this past year. Not blowing all that much or all that often, but when it did, it was completely invigorating to me. (And just a wee bit baffling. Where is this coming from? Where is this going?)

The further I walked in my journey of personal growth and discovery, listening for my life to speak, the more this wind blew. And now I find myself, set to sail in a slightly different direction, under a new wind.

I thoroughly believe the intimate is the universal. Which is why I love memoirs so much. And why I have courage to write my own story and why I've shared everything I possibly can (with time and privacy constraints) about my journey in the last few years. But to write introspection and personal growth stories is not the "ends" for me. It's been the means for this last part of my journey, but it's not the ends. It's not my long term aim in being a writer. (I will always write introspection and personal growth stories but I want those to be one part of the picture, not the entirety.)

The wind that has been blowing is a dream and an ambition about the writing I want to do, the writer I want to be.

My ambition is to give expression and bring to the light in writing the meeting place of stories of the heart and ideas of the mind. I want to equip myself for this mission by continuing to live wholeheartedly (see Brene Brown's work for a definition of this), training my mind in good books and sound thinking, being actively engaged in ordinary and extraordinary life-changing experiences, and by wrestling with and writing through the intellectual ideas and heart-growth that those experiences teach me.

I want to be a great thinker and communicator because I have immersed myself in Great Ideas and have honed the art and craft of visual and written communication. I want to know so many more things than I currently know. I want my words to be read, shared, savored and be impactful in people's lives because they ring true, speaking to the universal human experience; because they are well written; and because what I write is what I strive to live; an Engaged Life of conscious, kind, examined, truth-seeking, disciplined, and loving actions, regardless of my circumstance or situation.

I have dreams around these ambitions but those dreams are too big to share, too vulnerable. Maybe someday I'll share them but maybe they will always stay private and simply be a guiding light on the journey. A light I may never reach but a light that, nonetheless, gets me further along the path. That's the real gift of a dream anyway. It gets you going in a direction.

I want to write from the place where ideas and engaged living overlap in my life. Where ideas are lived out and the living gives rise to the ideas. But this requires growth in a few areas, chief among them, a more rigorous intellectual discipline, so I can critically examine an Idea, vetting thoughts and experiences with a more robust lens. And I need to have courage as I lean into the opportunities for growth, many of which are hardships, failures, disappointments, set-backs, and misfortunes. This is the soil from which I want to excavate knowledge, truth, beauty and wisdom (I consider writing as my tool), as I engage myself in wholehearted living and loving.

This is where the wind is blowing, this is where I'm growing.

Photos in this post are from our Appalachian Trail thru-hike in 2014. If you want to read more about this journey and see more pictures, I am journalling that adventure at Outsideways. Also, our 24 episode video series of that journey is now available for free on You Tube. A new episode is released each week.


Skating in Montreal

I grew up in rural Alberta. Which is to say, I grew up skating.

skating in montreal

In my experience, even if you weren't enrolled in extracurricular skating programs like hockey or figure skating, every kid learned to skate in elementary school in gym class. There wasn't a reliable outdoor rink at my school but we walked the 10 minutes or so to the arena, near the high school and civic centre, and we had our skating classes there.

Damien learned to skate as a child also, growing up likewise in rural Alberta, close to the Rocky Mountains. He was in hockey for a bit and his family lived in the country and they skated on a pond. He didn't like hockey, skating was ok, but snowboarding was his real love and winter sport passion.

skating in montreal

As we grew up and moved away from "home", making new homes in first New Jersey and then Maine, we grew out of skating. By the time our children were at the learn-to-skate age, skating did not factor into our lives. There were one or two winters in Maine where I took the kids skating at the indoor arena at the liberal arts college where Damien worked. Not too cold, good ice and good company; we'd go during Damien's lunch break and he'd meet us at the rink.

skating in montreal

When we moved to the Gaspe Peninsula five years ago, we introduced our family to skiing and it's been our winter sport ever since.

Last year was my first winter living in Montreal and I learned that skating abounds here, in a way I haven't experienced anywhere else I've lived. The city and neighborhoods ensure that skating is an accessible winter sport to city residents. Outdoor rinks pop up all over the city. Two exist within a 10 minute walk from our apartment. One is a full size hockey rink with boards and nets. The other is a "loop" of ice in a nearby park. This one includes a trailer with skates you can borrow (for free) and a blue porty-potty in case you just gotta go. (I'll walk home thanks.)

skating in montreal

We're not hockey players and we're still newbies on our skates so we stick to the park where parents and grandparents teach the toddlers to skate with the PVC pipe frames that you can also borrow from the trailer.

skating in montreal

As a child I learned to skate by pushing around a folding chair. People here do that too, arriving at the park with a folding chair under their arms, a snow-suited preschooler in tow.

I never did get skates last year, but this year I vowed to make it happen. It was one of those non-negotiables on my winter to-do list. I don't know how long I'll live in Montreal, so I want to make the most of what the city has to offer.

skating in montreal

Because we don't have a lot of experience with skating and I'm not sure Brienne and Laurent's feet are done growing, and because I wanted to just go somewhere and get the right skates, for the right price, I opted to rent skates this year from Poubelle de ski on Boulevard Saint Laurent; the place where thousands of Montrealers outfit their families for winter sports by renting equipment, at reasonable prices, for the season.

If the kids, one of those kids is nearly an adult now (gulp), decide they want to continue skating we'll look at buying skates next year but this was a good way to re-introduce everyone back to the sport.

skating in montreal

The kids have gone skating in the afternoons, as the weather permits. And for Brienne's belated birthday party I brought a gaggle of girls here also.

Lucky for me, Celine and I can share the same size (if I wear an extra thick sock) so I've been borrowing her skates. It's been about 10 years since I've been on skates but I have a childhood bank of muscle memory and experience to drawn on, it's coming back to me slowly. And I wear my ski helmet, the only adult at the park to do so, in case I lose my footing.

The weather in the city has not been conducive to skating for the last week or so. Warming temperatures, then freezing rain and slushy snow, but it looks like some cold days are coming, for which I am grateful. (After publishing this post I came across this video of someone skating on the street this past week in Montreal. I guess conditions were ok, on that one day at least, for skating after all. Just not for driving or walking!)

skating in montreal

All over the country people are skating this time of year. They are skating in arenas, and on ponds, they are skating on outdoor rinks flooded and maintained by civic-minded volunteers and municipal employees.

skating in montreal

I live in a vast northern land that is often divided by politics, in a country where it is hard to find a cohesive center across great geographical and cultural distance. The gift of my experience growing up in the European immigrant settled, English-speaking rural west, and living now as I do in francophone Quebec, in the heart of Canada's most cosmopolitan city, is how intimately I understand these tensions. I often ask myself, "what ties it all together besides Tim Hortons?"

Maybe it's skating.


Sunrise Botanics

One of the tricky things about making your own skincare products is sourcing the ingredients.

When I started this "hobby", nearly a decade ago, I lived in a small Maine city with an excellent health food store that stocked everything I needed to get started with making soap and body care products. I could buy a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I didn't have to pay for shipping.

I could experiment and play with this hobby without a huge financial investment.

As I become more interested and invested in making my own skincare products, selling some of my soap and teaching others, I started ordering larger quantities from online suppliers.

When I was living in the United States I was able to access the many online stores and took for granted the relatively inexpensive shipping prices. When we moved back to Canada six years ago it felt like going back to dark ages in terms of online shopping; fewer stores, higher prices, expensive shipping.

Thankfully, the online shopping options have improved in Canada over the past few years.

Making soap and body care products, herbalism, and essential oils have become businesses for many people (which is great!) and online suppliers have responded in kind with wholesale sizes and pricing.

This is good for those willing to spend hundreds of dollars on an individual order, but not everyone is able or interested to make that kind of investment into materials, especially if you're just exploring or experimenting with a new hobby.

Sunrise Botanics fills an important niche in the online Canadian market. (They sell also to US customers, but US customers have so many options for buying these supplies online, whereas Canadians have much fewer.)

Like other online retailers, Sunrise Botanics sells soapmaking, cosmetic and skincare raw materials, bulk herbs, candle making supplies, and essential oils.

Unlike other online Canadian suppliers with wholesale pricing and sizes, they have no minimum order and small sizes are available for almost all of their products.

And they have $5 flat rate shipping with minimum $50 purchase. They are the only online retailer, that I am aware of, in Canada to offer this.

Sunrise Botanics has a modern, up-to-date online interface. They have an extensive inventory, products are easy to find, and shopping cart mechanics are straightforward.

Their turn-around is excellent. I received my order within 5 business days, during the pre-Christmas rush, the busiest season of the year. A similar order at one of the wholesale suppliers would have taken three weeks. And I received excellent and friendly customer service. (I am doing a review, so it was in their best interest to do so. I would hope they treat everyone the same.)

A brief summary from a company representative highlights Sunrise Botanics unique place in the Canadian market:

  1. No order minimums.
  2. Shipping charge is subsidised for order minimums of $50 and above. $5 flat rate is the best in Canada bar none for this industry.
  3. Wide range of products from oils to bulk herbs/spices, dried flowers, and raw materials.
  4. Place your order today and it is shipped in 2 to 3 business days 95% of the time.
  5. Small sample sizes available for practically all of our products.
  6. Wide range of packaging options at reasonable price points.

In my experience with the company I cannot disagree with this assessment.

Sunrise Botanics meets a unique need in the Canadian market with an extensive supply of soapmaking, cosmetic and skin care raw materials, bulk herbs, candle making supplies, and essential oils in accessible sizes and quantities; while offering quick shipping and low cost delivery.

Sunrise Botanics is pleased to offer blog readers a 15% discount at their store, good until the end of February. Use the discount code FIMBY at checkout.

I received product in exchange for this review. I do not accept compensation for my opinion, ie: you can't buy my good recommendation or endorsement, but I do accept compensation for my time and expertise in evaluating products, services and/or brands. See here for full review compensation policy.

Kokum Butter Lotion Bar

Winter is my season for making soap, lotions, candles, and lip balm. This past November I started with a big batch of soap and some candles to get me through the first part of winter.

In December I made lotions and body butters. This month I'll make lip balm and more candles. Everything that gets made before Christmas is fair game for gift giving, and is part of the reason that late fall is such a great time to make these things.

It's a delight for me to create, use, and give these products and to keep my skin well moisturized during the dark, cold, and dry days of winter.

This year I've been experimenting again with lotion bars.

After some less than impressive results in past years I had largely dismissed lotion bars.

Most of the tutorials I'd found in previous years recommended using silicon molds. I don't have silicon molds. (Yes, I've been making skin care products for nearly a decade and I don't have silicon molds and still no desire to buy them either.)

cocoa butter

One time I used my silicon muffin pan to make little discs of lotion. In other attempts I just poured the mix into a small tin or glass jars.

I was not impressed with the small disc molding method. I find these awkward to store and transport. I was not super impressed with the tin and glass jar option either. Scratching my nail across the surface to loosen the solidified bar I kept thinking "there must be a better way to mold and use a lotion bar".

Of course there is, and other minds greater than mine figured this out years ago but it's taken me a while to catch on.

Pouring the mixture into a dispensing tube (aka: a deodorant tube) was a game changer. Yes, it's more money to make the bar, because you have to buy the tube (less than $2). But you can also re-use an old (thoroughly cleaned) deodorant tube.

shea butter

I made two batches of lotion bars before Christmas, and in my usual fashion I adapted recipes I found online. And in my usual fashion, I learned from trial and error.

My second batch produced a very hard bar, too much beeswax, so I had to "recall" a gift from a friend (yes, I asked to have it back) so I could re-melt it, add more shea butter, then re-pour the whole lot. She's a good friend, I wasn't embarrassed. And I'm happy to report the re-melt produced a much softer bar better than the original recipe.

re-pouring the lotion bars

My third attempt this season at making a lotion bar has yielded the best results. In fact, I've been working on this recipe to make it as fail-safe as possible (not too hard, not to soft, but just right) so I could heartily recommend it to you.

Kokum Butter Lotion Bar

This recipe uses a new-to-me vegetable butter called Kokum. I got the inspiration from Frugally Sustainable. If you can't source Kokum you can use a mix of shea and cocoa butter. I tested both recipes, one with kokum and one with a shea/cocoa butter mix but I prefer the kokum. I find it less greasy which is a huge win for homemade lotion.

I use this bar on my hands primarily but I would also use this on dry patches of skin.

This recipes makes just enough to fill one 80 ml (2.65 fl oz) deodorant tube. I tweaked this specifically, so you wouldn't have leftovers that you had to pour into... little jars and tins. 80 ml is the standard size dispensing tube, is easiest to find, and is the cheapest, at least for me, to buy.


  • 12 gm beeswax
  • 24 gm kokum butter, or 12 gm shea butter and 12 gm cocoa butter
  • 36 gm coconut oil
  • 5 drops each of peppermint, orange, clove, and lavender essential oils

You can use whatever essential oils you like but I find this particular combination to be an amazing fragrance.

I used a calendula-infused coconut oil for this lotion. I made a large batch in the fall and have been using it for all my lotions and lip balm making. Regular coconut oil is fine.


  1. Over low heat melt the oils in a pot. Remove from heat.
  2. Add essential oils. Stir well.
  3. Pour into tube. (Make sure the base of the tube is twisted all the way to the bottom so the maximum space can be filled.)

I love the dispensing tube for a couple reasons:

  • There is no water in this recipe so you don't have to worry about microbial growth. But the lotion that is below the top of the dispenser is not exposed to any contaminants from your skin or the air. This reduced exposure means that the bar will stay fresh for a long time. (I don't know exactly how long but it will definitely last the season.)

  • The tube is very portable and clean to use. No greasy tins or jars or "how do I take this in my purse/backpack?"

Click here to download a printable version of this recipe → Kokum Butter Lotion Bar

Making lotion bars is one of the easier homemade body care products to make. It's way easier than making a liquid lotion, and you avoid all the preservative controversy and microbial risks. It's way easier than making soap. And I think it's even easier than making lip balm, which requires pouring into little tubes.

If I was new to making soap and body care products I think I'd start with lotion bars. The ingredients are relatively easy to source, the recipe and directions are a breeze, and it makes a great product.

My next post will be a review, along with a coupon code, from a Canadian supplier, Sunrise Botanics, for buying everything you need to make lotion bars and other soapmaking, cosmetic, and skincare products.

Also, if you want to learn to make soap this winter, registration for Hibernate is still open for a couple more days. We are already having a wonderful time in the retreat sharing our winter wellness plans, learning how to harvest and prepare chaga brews, making herbal cold remedies, and learning easy knitting patterns. And that's just the first four days!


All the time there is

I know the calendar has been flipped to a new year and the messages we hear this month tend to be forward, upward, and onward. Make this your best year ever kind of thing. I'm just not there yet.

And I need to look back to the month of December and the Christmas holiday to make sense of this.

That's your fair warning that this story goes back before it goes forward.

Christmas is a lot of effort and it all stacks up. It's a season of extra commitments, extra shopping, extra driving, extra cooking, extra everything.

I'm no scrooge. I love the idea of Christmas celebrations - all the goodwill, cheer and cozy. But December is a month of high energy and high activity, like a funnel in which we're all spiralling towards December 24th. Spiralling towards slightly crazy.

December didn't always feel crazy to me. Once upon a time, when I was Queen of my universe, I was a part of a slow-living mindset and movement around December. It was relatively easy, when I was high Queen and my young princessess and prince were little, to set boundaries around our activities and commitments. The children were smaller, our social circles were smaller. The season was spent in a low-key, make your own gifts type fashion.

Not every year was like this. There were some years in which I had overcommitted myself and in the following years I made corrections, but the trajectory and vibe of those years was towards a slower season.

I'm not saying it was idyllic.

The Christmas season has usually been accompanied for me by an ache for an unnameable and unknowable loss or absence (like a nostalgia), and for an unattainable perfection and union: in beauty, connection, and relationships. I am more aware of a darkness in the world, and in recent years, a darkness in myself.

I don't talk about this very much in my face-to-face conversations with people (I write about it a bit here), but it is an undercurrent of the season for me.

Ultimately, I think this undercurrent is a longing for God in my life - the unnameable, unknowable, perfection in all things. The light to the darkness.

I have heeded this spiritual undercurrent by paying more attention in recent years to Advent and Christmastide.

That ache has always been there. But now that my prince and princesses have grow the season is busier. I feel like a queen without a capital Q, my reign over the kingdom has shrunk. I don't have the control or the influence I once did in what family life looks like in terms of schedules, interests, and out-of-the-home commitments.

And yet I know that in the same way I look back to Christmas seasons' past and long with nostalgia for the days where a trip to the library and a farm visit were the chief outside-the-house activities of our week, I will look back on these years and long for the days where our home was filled with teenager energy, creativity, and video-gaming. These, like the ones before, are the good years.

When things feel out of control to me, out of my hands, I remember that it is my choice to support the growing independence and individuality of my children.

I choose to support their strong need for social engagements and the expressions of their individual selves (outside the collective of our family identity). And I choose to be a part of a hustle and bustle that comes by belonging to community and groups of people whose agenda and schedule is not set by me.

This is the subtext of my life right now. The subtext of my writing.

The letting go of how I want to do things while being necessarily involved in more activities, more busyness than I want to, in order to support my kids at this stage.

This is hard for me. It is necessary. It is growing in me a holy dependence on a source of strength and love outside myself.

I emotionally fall down at this job so very often. I don't feel like there is enough of me to do it well. I set boundaries and I do my best to honor them. I'm pretty good at self-care. I've read "all the things", the messages and media of how we must simplify, prioritize, focus, whatever. I've written that kind of stuff. But life remains what it is, a day-in and day-out routine of holy work for which I often think, "How on earth am I qualified to do this? Where will I find the strength?"

Sometimes I fight this work. The work being done in me and the work set before me.

This is also the subtext of my life right now.

It's a useless fight but I get angry and frustrated at all the things I can't control, I get angry at myself, so I rail and swear, or sigh and weep. And on better days I put my shoulder to the work that needs to be done with a joyful and deeply grateful heart, because my work, essentially, is to build and nurture the people I care about most deeply. This is a gift.

I keep showing up, sometimes feeling motivated by love and goodwill and other times feeling motivated by a deep sense of responsibility and commitment. Perhaps they are the same.

Many days I feel like a freakin' Katy Perry song, in relationship with myself.

Cause you're hot then you're cold
You're yes then you're no
You're in then you're out
You're up then you're down
You're wrong when it's right
It's black and it's white
We fight, we break up
We kiss, we make up

The Christmas season was a twinkly-lights version of this:

The letting go of how I want to do things while being necessarily involved in more activities, more busyness than I want to, in order to support my kids at this stage.

All I wanted after Christmas, before the New Year started in earnest, was to do whatever I wanted.

I wanted to experience an expansiveness to my days and my mindset that I struggle to achieve in my "regular" days. Days filled with tasks related to homemaking and money management, and getting these kids ready to graduate and off to their co-op classes.

I had shored up myself mentally through the rush of December, through the hustle and bustle (some of which I enjoy, some of which I don't), with the idea that I was going to gift myself with a post-Christmas break.

Here's what I wrote the morning after coming home from our Christmas trip to Nova Scotia:

"I love this liminal space between Christmas celebrations and my start on the New Year (sometime around Epiphany). It is a mixed bag of productivity and reflection, cleaning the house and reading books, vigorous walks and soaking in the tub, re-stocking the fridge and eating simple meals.

Someday I'd like to write about this space, this time, a most necessary non-rushed end to the holidays, a soft transition period."

Here's what actually transpired:

I had to buy a new fridge to replace the one that's been broken for the last 2 months. Two months. November and December were a cycle of five failed repair attempts, frozen vegetables and thawing food, going to the grocery store nearly every day for the perishables.

The inefficiency, the loss, the extra cost. Ugh. But we didn't want to buy a new fridge till we really knew the old one couldn't be salvaged, and the repair people kept saying "this should fix it". But it never did and we finally cut our losses, ate the repair bill (we were only charged once for all five visits), stopped mourning all the wasted time and food and bought a new fridge.

I bought the new fridge between Christmas and New Years, and although Boxing Day sales are a thing in Canada, there were none to be had for what we needed. But buying something this time of the year entailed hours on the phone waiting to speak to customer service representatives of several appliance stores during probably the highest call volume time of the year. It was like stepping into a consumer gladiators arena.

It took a week for our new fridge to be delivered. Another week of food freezing in our coolers on the back deck and daily runs to the grocery store. (In December we bought an upright freezer, a planned expense, and this helped since we could keep all the frozen food in there.)

There was more shopping to do. I just wanted all the shopping to be over, I don't like shopping and December was full with shopping, but the girls needed things for a party (another party!) and the kids needed skates, so shopping we went.

By the time New Years celebrations rolled around I was tired of special days. Special days require special effort and I was just tired of special effort. I desperately wanted to cocoon and burrow into my own space. So I passed on the New Years Eve party at my friends' house (speaking of building community). And Damien and I shared the driving so that at least the kids could go and sleep over for the night. (I got the morning pick-up shift.)

For the first week of the New Year, until I stopped visiting Facebook and got really judicious with Instagram, I felt inundated with the messages of New Year intentions and New Year Goal setting. Make this your best year ever! (Oh, go away.) I got the feeling that if I didn't get on the wagon I'd be left in the dust.

Fine. Leave me in the dust. At least it's quiet here.

I had done my own year-end reflections in December, around my birthday. It took me a month to publish those thoughts, contributing in part to the glut of those type of posts at beginning of the New Year, but my heart and mind were not in the New Years frame of mind when the New Year actually rolled around.

I was not ready for the new-ness of the New Year. I was not ready for the changes you are "supposed" to make, even the small ones I needed to make, like getting a new journal.

My house was a mess from travel and transition and broken things. And the work that had been put off or set aside during Christmas celebrations, things I am responsible for outside our home and commitments I have to other people, came rushing at me. And more special days were on the calendar, a friend's baby shower and a belated birthday party that Brienne had negotiated for way back in November.

That soft transition I had hoped for was both a false promise and an unrealistic expectation.

So I'm doing Chinese New Year. Not like I did when the kids were little and I cooked that feast and spent the month reading books about China (oh, the days). I'm starting my New Year at the end of January, instead of the beginning. I'm using the whole month of January to move myself from a post-Christmas space into "it's a new year!" frame of mind. I'm giving myself this time.

I keep a quote in my files, and occasionally I remember it.

We have all the time there is.

I have it written down that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote this in You Learn by Living, but I can't confirm that, so don't "quote" me. Ha!

The New Year as a time to start fresh, get life in order, whatever else you hoped to achieve, is an arbitrary date. As are many dates that we think are fixed and immutable, the time by which a child should read, or graduate. The length of time allowed for grief or deep joy.

There are deadlines in our lives for sure. But the New Year, as the clean and soft transitional start I was hoping for is not one of them.

I'm choosing to go forward into the New Year slowly, and in the areas I have control over, I'm going at my own pace.

I have all the time there is.

The photos in this post are from three glorious ski outings from the last couple weeks. A quick x-country ski in the city, a climbing-the-mountain day at Mt. Tremblant, and night skiing last week at Bromont.

Supply list for Hibernate Soapmaking Tutorial

Hibernate starts in a few days. There is still time to register.

I am teaching a soapmaking tutorial in this year's retreat and have prepared a supply list for those of you who are taking the class and want to get a head start on getting your materials.

I was specifically asked for this list by some friends on Instagram and I'm posting it here so I can keep it with my soapmaking pages for future reference.

In the soapmaking tutorial I've prepared for Hibernate I walk you through cold process soapmaking, from gathering the things you need in the kitchen before you start, to cutting and curing the bars at the very end. I teach a bit of troubleshooting, as I had issues arise in my own soapmaking during the video process.

This is a basic tutorial. I teach a straightforward technique, without too many variables to overwhelm you or introduce possibility for error.

My goal for this tutorial is that class participants will feel soapmaking is an accessible craft and that they would be empowered by the instructions and information I’ve provided to be confident enough to try it on their own.

Many people I've met are interested in making soap but they are intimidated by the process, and using lye especially. My main message when it comes to lye is this: use common sense and appropriate safety measures and fear not. Don't be so afraid of lye that you don't try making soap. Unless you are ridiculously clumsy or unable to follow simple safety rules, you can handle this.

Although I kept things simple in this tutorial I do spend some time talking about creating essential oil blends for soap. The natural fragrance of essential oils is one of the deep pleasures for me of soapmaking and I wanted to make sure to share some of that knowledge and experience with you.

Here's what you'll need to make this soap.

  • 4.5 oz lye
  • 12.2 oz distilled water
  • 8 oz coconut oil
  • 8 oz olive oil
  • 8 oz palm oil
  • 3.2 oz sunflower oil
  • 3.2 oz canola oil
  • 1.6 oz castor oil
  • 1.5 oz essential oils

In the tutorial I provide a detailed recipe with metric measurements also.

As I explain in the tutorial I do not use the highest quality essential oils in soapmaking. I don't use the bottles sold at the health food store or through multi-level marketing companies.

I buy all my soapmaking essential oils online, in "bulk" quantities where possible.

This recipe calls for a total of 1.5 oz of essential oils. I used a blend of rosemary, lavender, and peppermint.

You can find those essential oils, the vegetable oils and fats (called carrier oils), and the lye for this recipe at one of these suppliers.

United States:


Supplies & Tools:
  • scale
  • thermometer
  • immersion or stick blender
  • gloves
  • eye protection
  • stainless steel soup pot
  • a couple glass, ceramic, stainless steel or plastic mixing bowls for measuring oils (I use a 2 cup glass measure)
  • small glass jar, plastic or stainless steel container for measuring lye
  • 4 cup/1 quart mason jar - must be heat resistant
  • stainless steel spoon (for measuring lye and scooping the solid fats)
  • wooden spoon for stirring lye mixture*
  • silicon spatula or plastic spatula*
  • wooden spoon or spatula for melting oils
  • newspaper/circular flyer papers/piece of cardboard
  • paper towel
  • rags
  • vinegar
  • small cardboard box for a mold
  • thick plastic bag
  • scissors
  • tape

*These tools should be designated for soapmaking or craft purposes only.

Most of these supplies and tools you will already have around your house.

That's the list. With these supplies on hand you'll have everything you need to make soap.

I am so looking forward to participating in Hibernate again this winter. I need it! And I look forward to connecting with you in that warm and cozy space.


Growth (in community) & Tools

This is the third post in a three part series of year-end reflections.

Growth (in community)

Our family belongs to several communities. We are part of a homeschool co-op on the West Island of Montreal. For those unfamiliar with the area, this is essentially a different town from us. And for our family to participate in that community we must drive, schedule, make arrangements, leave where we actually live and travel to a different place.

But that community is part of our village, committed to helping each other raise and educate our children. It is such a supportive and talented group of families. What we are able to accomplish as a group, and provide for our children, is much bigger than what each of our families could do on our own. And that is the strength of a collective. But to build such a community takes effort. And when you live in a different town, it takes extra effort.

We belong to our actual neighborhood, and we love this neighborhood. We love the city. We have neighbors who share our walls and fences. Neighbors for whom I am building a backyard garden to bring beauty into all our lives. Neighbors who shop at the same hardware store and grocery store we frequent. These neighbors are predominantly francophone and this is a barrier (for me and the kids especially) to building deeper relationships with these people. But it is a barrier that I desperately want to move past, as my heart's desire is to cultivate friendships across fences, to get to know the people in our building and neighborhood.

And we belong to a church community. Our church community is the people we gather with on Sunday mornings and throughout the week to share our lives together. We've got the Sunday morning thing down, but getting together with people throughout the week is trickier for us with our West Island commitment taking us out of the city and into a different town a couple times a week. We can't do everything and Damien and I are careful that our family builds boundaries in our relationships with each other and our relationships within communities, so we keep healthy: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And yet, we feel the tug for more connection, more shared life with our church community.

This has always been our heart's desire. That we would share life with people, not just a religion, or a way of believing, but the activities of our days. We do this as a family of five and the church, the body of Christ, is a family. And we have always been drawn into growing deeper community in the church.

We live in a tension. The desire for more connection and community and the busyness of our lives. And we are always wanting to integrate these two.

My last post was about words, my word for 2017 is Release and one of things I want to be released into is more hospitality, more community building.

We are five, we are a community unto ourselves, and amongst our five we must balance engagement and rest, giving and receiving. And we five then fit into these other communities and we must balance our engagement as one unit within those communities, while still balancing our engagements with each other!

I (and we) want to be a house of hospitality but this has to unfold in a way that will work for our family and work for me. I don't particularly like cooking these days (these days being the last few years). I feel out-of-sync in that realm. Our family differs on how each of us wants to eat and our values around food have shifted. Feeding other people feels complicated to me. I don't feel freedom, I feel stress. And this is not the emotion from which I want to give. Also, I have very real energy limits in my life. Physical, emotional and spiritual needs for rest. I have a full-time job.

I don't know how this will work itself out in our lives, in our year. But like with calling and vocation, I'm not trying to figure out the big, grand picture I'm following the breadcrumb trail of curiosity, step by step by step. There are barriers: time, language, finances, physical space (our dining room table "comfortably" seats 4, yes, we are 5), I'd rather make soap, organize, or pay bills than cook, etc. etc. but I don't have to have that all figured out. I just need to be willing to take the step that is right in front of me, listen for the Spirit, and give from what has been given to me. (And no, I don't know exactly what that looks like.)

This is an area I am seeking to find release into this coming year.

Bullet Journal (for the journey)

Last spring I started a series on how I manage ideas, and my last, and still unpublished post in that series is about using a bullet journal. This is not that post, it's just a brief overview of how this type of journaling system helps me reflect from day to day and month to month, a tool to help me notice and pay attention to what my life is teaching me.

I started using a Bullet Journal at the beginning of 2016. A bullet journal can be whatever kind of planning, recording system you want it to be. A bullet journal is really just a system of keeping a journal, and what you keep in that journal is completely up to you.

(This time of year there is a ton of buzz on these journals.)

I spent months researching bullet journals trying to figure out if it would work for me, and I had a rough idea going into it how I might set things up. But what I did not anticipate is how many spiritual ideas and personal reflections I would keep in this journal.

In the past I've always kept my day planner separate from personal journals. I'm not sure how it evolved into this but in 2016 the planning and the personal merged together. And I like it. It also means I'd be devastated if I lost this book, as I would lose more than just the to-do list but the written record of my inner life through the year.

What is great about the bullet journal concept is that you can weave these two together really well. There's nothing limiting you in a bullet journal. There is no calendar or weekly template you must follow and fill, preventing you from chronicling personal thoughts right alongside the week's tasks.

For me, it seems that using a bullet journal has allowed me to see with more clarity the connection between my growth (the struggle and triumphs) and my responsibilities, tasks, to-do's that facilitate that growth.

I love looking back through this journal, pages thick with writing, key themes and lessons underlined in my seasonal-colored gel pens; week after week the doings of family, home and community life recorded; lists with boxes checked, and pages of plans gone awry; a record of the kids temperatures during our sick season; mantras and truth underlined and starred: this is not going to take me down, the spirit of God lives in me, the world does not have what you seek, it's an inside job, God's got this, and when you only have the energy for one thing: live like you are loved (and so many more); lists of things I'm grateful for; travel logs from our summer trip; pages of frustrated and angry words, sometimes stained with my tears; sketches to communicate where words fail; Examen notes and thoughts quickly written after morning meditation; sermon notes and schedules; a list of blog posts I didn't write and others that I did, etc.

Keeping this kind of journal (you can call it whatever you like but I first learned how to index and organize such disparate ideas under the bullet journal banner so I call it that) has been a helpful tool for gathering the messy parts of my life into a cohesive whole. It helps me secure the perimeter, to gather everything together and make sense of it. And it breaks down the barriers between sacred and profane, because for me that's a false dichotomy.

Every single part of my life is infused by the Spirit, if I open myself to that possibility. The Spirit carries me, works through me, corrects and admonishes me (when my pride doesn't get in the way, which it often does). The Spirit is always present, always moving, always working. And this journal is record of that movement through this past year.

Where do you see yourself growing this coming year? Do you feel scared or excited about that?

Do you use a bullet journal or something similar? What tools do you use to make connections between the day-to-day details and big picture growth?

Words & Movements

This post is the second in a three part series of year-end reflections.

Over the last few weeks, back into mid-November, I have been thinking a lot about my 2016 word(s) for the year and looking ahead, settling on a word(s) for 2017.

I've grown into my own word-for-the-year practice. For years the idea of choosing a word for the year mystified me. Where did the word come from exactly? And just one word? How can one word fit an entire year?

But I was very intrigued and wanted to get in on the action so I started by choosing my word for the year in retrospect, looking back on the previous year for a dominant theme. I like closure so that worked for me.

About three years ago I started choosing a word for the year before the year had begun.

I don't know how other people find their own words to express the coming year. In my case, these words might be a desire I have, how I hope to align my external reality with my inner self in the coming year. Or they might be a more definitive word that largely expresses an external reality, a goal perhaps based on life season, time and place.

The question I have asked myself about choosing a word for the year is: does it influence you, or do you influence it? In other words, does that word change your path somehow, or does your path determine your word. I think the answer is both.

Words frame our experience. They are a mental construct to help us make sense of things. Words help us write a story with our life, they help make the messy and confusing feel more cohesive and tidy.

As a memoirist blogger, I use words, lots of words, to tell the story of my experience ("narrative" is the buzz word these days) in an attempt to find hidden structure or to bring order and meaning to an experience.

This is what stories are, a narrative that helps us to make sense of the chaotic and challenging circumstances of our lives.

Our stories and our words are both tools and truth.

They are tools to help us make sense of things. And they are truth in that how we tell that story, how we make sense of our experiences, will inform and influence how we actually experience the world. Our stories are both an expression of an experience and the lens through which we view that experience and future experiences. In this way, our stories, our words, have the power to manifest things in our lives.

Words have the power to create worlds, to create reality.

As a person who struggles with anxiety, I know, first hand, the power of words to create both positive and negative "realities". How I perceive a situation, the words I use to make sense of it (the words I use to describe the people, the motives, the actions, etc), those words, more than the circumstance itself, is what defines my reality in that situation.

I'm not about to make the leap that my perception equals capital R reality, the absolute truth of a situation. That is a philosophical discussion I'm not prepared to have right now. But what I am prepared to put forth, and stand by, is that what you believe about something gives power to that idea, event, person, object, remembrance. And how we frame experiences (and people) with our words, can be a tool to build, restore, improve, create, or it can be a force of destruction, on all levels of relationship - intrapersonal, interpersonal, families, communities, societies.

I want my words to create a reality of love and freedom, for myself and others.

Choosing a word for the year is part of this intention. This is not an exact science for me, it's more of a "sense" I have of where I'm at right now or what my heart is telling me I need to focus on.

Here's my list of words of the year going back to when I started this. Remember I started this as a retrospective activity.

  • 2009 - dream
  • 2010 - plan
  • 2011 - move
  • 2012 - re-root
  • 2013 - establish
  • 2014 - hike (beyond my boundaries)
  • 2015 - heal (fallowed field)
  • 2016 - receive (open hands open heart)
  • 2017- release (open hands open heart, part 2)

You'll notice at 2014 I move beyond one word. That demarcates when I started choosing a word at the beginning, instead of the end of the year. I also can't keep it to just one word.

I've been blogging through all these years but 2015 was probably the first year I expressed my word for the year explicitly on the blog. I meant to write a post last January with the word for 2016 but didn't get that done.

Words of the year are not written in stone, they are written on hearts and hearts can change. At the beginning of this year I felt very strongly that my words for this year were Open Heart Open Hands. (I know, more than one word.)

I had been thinking that after a year set aside for healing (2015) it was probably time to open my hands in service. And then in January, it was clear to me through the movement of the Spirit in my heart (these things are hard to explain), that open heart open hands mostly meant I was to receive.

As a doer this is not my natural inclination. And I wasn't even sure what this meant. Our lives are to be full of service to others. This is our calling and vocation as humans, to serve each other. And as mothers, partners, fathers, homeschoolers, community builders, employees, whatever we are, we are always serving in some capacity. But everything has a season, and some seasons we need focus on receiving, and that was what I needed to learn this past year.

I feel like 2015 set the stage for that because basic healing practices were in place, it was like the foundation was laid for what I was about to receive.

Now obviously there is always two sides of story: we are giving and receiving, shining and sheltering, exploring and rooting, relaxing and stretching, in the same way that breathing depends on an inhale and an exhale. But I do believe there can be an overall theme to the experience of a year or a life season. And the overall theme for me last year was to receive.

At the beginning of 2016 the word receive was clear to me, but it wasn't clear "what" I was to be receiving. The word gave me a direction, gave me hints about to look for, but it didn't give me "the thing" itself. The thing itself was what I received. It's like saying the word "gift", gift tells you something special is coming, something wrapped up just for you, but not what that special thing is.

Just like opening a gift and discovering what's inside, so to has this year been a discovery of what I've been receiving. In the last month, I asked myself "what have you received this year?" And then I looked back at each month, revisiting the seasons of pain and frustration, and the growth that came out of that, mentally revisiting the times of ease and a strong sense of well-being. (I always prefer the latter over the former.) And here's the list I came up with.

This year I received:

  • the Spirit in a fresh new way
  • a deeper sense of God's love for me
  • further understanding of my identity
  • increasing freedom from anxiety
  • insights about my marriage and my husband
  • some clarity in my callings
  • friendship
  • the message so strong and clear, that I am to rest in God, and the only sustainable and life-giving way to serve and love is to be rooted here in this love, first and foremost

God's love is always present, the Spirit is always in me. But there are times in our life where we are made more aware of certain realities and this was my year to deeply receive these truths, these gifts.

At the beginning of 2016 I had thought it was a year to open my heart open my hands into some kind of giving. And I don't doubt that I have given of myself this year. But I feel that 2016 was the year to understand what I have received, to experience that depth of love, out of which I can actually give.

At the end of 2016, as I look into 2017, I believe I'm being released to serve and love, part two of open heart open hands. It's the year for a release of what God has given me.

I have small inklings of what this might look like. I have started to move in this freedom in the last part of this year. But I also know I can't quite imagine both the struggles and the joys that will accompany this heart-set (like a mindset of the heart). I am excited and scared. But when I feel that anxiety, I need to go right back into the source of all my strength and courage, dive right back into what I have received - love.


Looking back on this past year I see movement into positions and places that were unexpected. Movement into these roles and responsibilities has not been smooth or easy. I went through a difficult period of anxiety this fall in one such transition. And there was no signpost saying, "this way Renee". There were prayer, tears, frustration, self-surrender, and this: being quiet to listen for the voice of the Spirit.

This is a key piece for me to be grounded (something I talked about in the first post of this series). I am not a naturally quiet person. I'm extraverted and in times of distress I might go either way, into frenetic and frantic behavior or into deep retreat, pull the covers up over my head and seek shelter and "safety" from the discomfort, exposure and pain I am experiencing.

But the path for me is neither. The path is to root and ground myself in quiet and contemplation, to listen to the Spirit and then use all that energy that comes naturally to me, all that bubbly, all that effervescence, to act. Not in a response to my fear, but in response to the Spirit.

This past year I have nurtured my ability (and been equipped by the Spirit) to show up and be present in pain and discomfort, mine and others. I'm still a baby in these skills, my first instinct is to hide and shelter but I know I'm being asked to grow in this. I have more words to publish on this subject (I've been writing a lot about this idea) but for today, in this moment of reflection and celebration, I am grateful for the compassion, born out of brokenness and vulnerability, that I am able to bring to situations that I couldn't before. Situations I would have avoided for fear of exposing my weaknesses and inadequacy, or situations into which I would have brought judgement.

I have started, once again after a season of retreat, to put myself out there in new realms, realms where I am depended on and I don't feel completely up to the task, unsure of my competency to do the job well and fulfill my responsibility. And I'm having to remember, in those feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, where my security and sense of worthiness comes from. And I am proud (I did question the use of that word and chose it intentionally because I am proud, not in a boastful way, but a deeply grateful way) of myself that I do this in spite of the anxiety these situations cause me. I still struggle with anxious episodes. But I know these are things you cannot go around, but must go through, in order to gain strength and confidence.

Do you have a word of the year? How do you choose that?

What kind of movements did you experience this past year? Did you move into some things and out of others?


Christmas Stories: Celebrations

It was a eight day trip: two very full driving days and six days with family.

My brother's family, my parents, and our family - the Toews/Tougas clan were all together for a few days.

During that time we went to Halifax to watch Rogue One with the whole family for my brother's birthday. We had Christmas Eve talent show, in which every family member had to contribute something.

We ate food, so much good food, that I wasn't responsible for planning - that's a Christmas gift right there. Thanks Mom!

We played the game telephone pictionary, and had the best belly laughs as a result. The kids played lots of video games, watched Netflix and YouTube. They also played soccer in the wide back hallway of my parent's house, duct taping a board over the bottom glass door of the book cabinet for protection. My dad helped Celine find the right tools to finish her woodworking project that was a gift for Brienne.

On Christmas Day morning, after a hearty breakfast prepared by my parents, my brother's family left to visit with my sister-in-law's family.

The days preceding Christmas were full and busy. The days following were pretty relaxed and calm.

We went for afternoon walks and short hikes; on the highway along the river, at Indian Path Common, and Gaff Point at Hirtle's Beach. We took naps. We went to see the house my dad is building, some of us took advantage of local Boxing Day sales.

Mom taught Brienne how to make Scandinavian flatbread.

In the mornings we slept-in and in the evenings we watched movies - Captain Fantastic, Florence Foster Jenkins, and Sully. I recommend them all.

My dad started the fire in the morning and rekindled it for the evening. Midday was often warm, the sun streaming through the windows.

On Wednesday we drove the fourteen hours or so home. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec.

Christmas, the celebration, is over. I am back in my small living room, a busy Montreal street outside my window, the sky grey with the promise of forecasted snow.

I love this liminal space between Christmas celebrations and my start on the New Year (sometime around Epiphany). It is a mixed bag of productivity and reflection, cleaning the house and reading books, vigorous walks and soaking in the tub, re-stocking the fridge and eating simple meals.

Someday I'd like to write about this space, this time, a most necessary non-rushed end to the holidays, a soft transition period. For now, it is enough to say on the threshold of this New Year that I am equally grateful for the happy memories of Christmas just-past, this present moment of coffee and grey sky, and the anticipation of the days ahead.

Christmas Stories: Sanctuary

My parents like to name their houses.

The first house they named was the historic home we moved to when I was in grade 5. My parents had a dream to renovate and restore one of the oldest homes in the Alberta prairie town in which I was born and raised.

My Dad was (and is) a builder and my parents have impeccable taste and decorating sense. For the remainder of my childhood - late elementary, junior high and high school years - I grew up in The Heritage House, a registered historical site in which my mom ran a one-room bed and breakfast. A quick google search confirms that the current owners still run a bed and breakfast in my childhood home.

That was my parents first named house. It took them a few years to name their current home - Sanctuary - along the LaHave river close to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

For the many people who are blessed by my parents' hospitality, Sanctuary is the perfect name for this home. As their adult daughter, a busy mother of three teenagers, this home "in the country" set against the woods with its' floor-to-ceiling wall of windows overlooking the river is a Sanctuary from city living and city traffic, city air and city stress.

But really, as much as I love the architecture and art, the wood burning stove and radiant heat concrete floors, as much as I love the fresh salt air and my mom's amazing cooking, the true Sanctuary of my parents' home is their love. Their daily prayers for their children and grandchildren. Their steadfast faith and integrity.

The physical space that my parents have christened Sanctuary is the outward expression of their hearts.

I didn't grow up in this house but coming to Nova Scotia for Christmas is coming back to this heart, which is coming home.

Perimeters & Foundations

This post is the first in a three part series of year end reflections.

I turned forty-one this month, and like any birthday, this one invited reflection on the past year, both the calendar year from January to December, but also my "birthday year" which happens to follow the same cycle as the calendar year.

My parents had a thing for December babies, or rather, they knew how to beat those March blues, as my younger brother was also born in December.

My December birthday is wrapped up in everything that the holiday season and end of year means to me.

In this last month of the year, amongst holiday activities, Advent meditations, and the general good will and cheer (and busyness) of the season I am also mentally preparing to put closure on this year and anticipating and planning for the next. I am pondering the things I've experienced in the last 12 months and thinking about guiding themes and directions for the year ahead. It's a lot of reflection for one month, but to be lost in that kind of thinking, and then writing those thoughts is one of my deep pleasures, so lucky me in December. It's like a birthday gift.

The end of one year, a new one coming, my birthday, the holiday season they all conflate into this month, that for me, is defined by contemplation and celebration.

I'm supposing, though I honestly don't really remember, that I may have always been bent this way - to reflect a lot on the past. I think it expressed itself differently when I was younger, in my desire to carry forth traditions, which probably influenced my career path as a homemaker.

As an ESTJ I concern myself with how things have been done in the past and generally try to find some kind of successful example to follow in my life. For many of us, myself included, life has veered from a path that we can follow, by choice or by circumstance (who we marry, where we move for work, the stuff that happens to us beyond our control).

It feels like the modern age gives rise to more of this off-the-path stuff (though maybe that's just an illusion on my part). Maybe this is why I have such a compulsive need to write the path, write the story; because my life doesn't follow past generations' experiences very well (who's does?!) and it's non-traditional (based on where I come from) and I have to reconcile that reality with how I'm wired - to align my life with knowns and keep things (relationships and resources) in safe boundaries.

There's got to be a path, and I'll write it after the fact if need be.

By nature, my first response to a problem or pain is to ask "what mistake did we make in our past to bring this upon ourselves? How can we learn to never make that error again."

I'm not saying this is necessarily healthy, and in many cases it doesn't help solve the existing problem, but it is an unconscious and deep-rooted response of mine. As an ESTJ I am looking to make systems and structures that work well and protect people (myself included), based on experience with past situations. And so it's very necessary for me to reflect and bring order to experiences, to dig up the truths to carry forward with me.

I move into the future based on how I process my past experiences.

Let's talk about ESTJ's

I am reminded here of a podcast I listened to recently on the ESTJ personality type by Personality Hacker. I love Personality Hacker, they are one of my favorite places to geek out on personality type stuff.

Because this is my "birthday post" I'm taking the liberty to expound upon ESTJ traits a little. As a "gift" for the ESTJ's in the crowd (though most of you who contact me and have formed relationships with me via the blog are very different from my type, go figure) and for those of you who love an ESTJ.

In that podcast Antonia and Joel talk about healthy and unhealthy ESTJ's (and all the other EJ types). I appreciate that breakdown because for me that's how you up-your-game in self-awareness: you identify and move forward into healthier ways of being. The purpose of self-awareness is to know your strengths and weaknesses, your ways of looking at things and processing information - to build healthier relationship with yourself and others.

The signs of a healthy ESTJ: (highlights from that Personality Hacker podcast)

  • Grounded in a sense that everything is going to be okay.
  • Many ESTJs may experience anxiety because they can’t find enough security and safety around them. The healthier an ESTJ gets the more that fear goes away.
  • Instead of frenetically attempting to force change upon the world, the healthy ESTJ will find a way to create change at the structural level – with institutions.
  • The stereotypical ESTJ is the supervisor, manager, civil servants, or local politician. Their desire to make sure institutions are running well really defines their health. They are grounded and focused.
  • A really grounded ESTJ is a protector. They are reliable. They are making things happen from a grounded place.
  • They can be very protective of their families and ensure the needs of their mates are being met. They secure the perimeter.

The word grounded in these descriptions is particularly interesting to me. I identify strongly with the need to feel grounded and before I had language for that I would have expressed that as resistant to change, not very spontaneous, comforted by routines, all of which is still an accurate description, but the reason for those things is because of what's underneath. My need to feel grounded and secure makes change, spontaneity, and open-endness threatening.

The unhealthy way to lower that threat is to resist change, become more controlling in an attempt to manage my environment. The healthy way to lower that threat is to root deeper in my true source of security.

One of the ongoing challenges of my adult years has been to find that grounding, that security, in a life-sustaining relationship with the Divine.

This three-part series of posts are reflections on the past year. I've been looking through my journal and my writings for dominant themes from the last year and possible directions for the New Year. The importance of being grounded is the theme that flashes neon red.

This is probably a foundational theme in my life because of who I am and what moves me. But this idea has become front and center in my life in the past two years because of the breakdown of 2014.

December 2014 was a very hard season for us, a difficult time in our marriage. My birthday that year was short on "celebration". The salve to that pain was that a new year was around the corner, and that we had 365 days before my next birthday to make changes for the better.

What I'm writing in these posts, my reflections, are the "two years later" to that birthday, and the "one year later" to last year's birthday post.


Two of the resources I used for healing in the past two years recommended making a list of my life accomplishments, as a self-affirming exercise, a list of evidence against false thoughts and wrong thinking (a CBT technique). According to The Wisdom of the Enneagram, type 6's forget their achievements and this is not surprising news to me. When I am in a bad mental space all past achievements are forgotten, or worse, trivialized. And it becomes hard to have hope for the future with such a bleak (& false) remembrance of the past.

But I do believe remembering our accomplishments is bigger than a personality type issue.

So many times in the Bible, the writer/speaker exhorts the reader/listener to remember what God had done for them in the past. Remember and tell, because when we forget, we don't just forget a detail of the past, we forget an identity. This is what testimony is, we bear witness to the hand of God, the work of the Spirit, the evidence of Grace in our life.

I see a list of life accomplishments as a kind of evidences of grace document.

Of course the narcissist could point all the glory to herself in a list of this type. Look at how great I am. But most of us are cognizant that so much grace has been given to us in our birth, in our every breath, in our family of origin or in our friendships. We see the grace in the time this terrible thing almost happened but didn't, or the terrible thing did happen but look where I am now, in the "stars aligning", or the "universe supporting" us, that we know that everything we accomplish in our life is made possible by unmerited grace.

And so my list of life accomplishments is really a document of grace in my life, it's a list of the "big things" that have transpired, written through the lens of grateful heart.

For this post I want to share two points of celebration from that list.

I am thankful for my close relationship with my three teenagers. I am privy to love and loss. Triumph and disappointments. I don’t know everything, there are secrets kept in hearts and amongst the three. (I adore that the three of them share things with each other that I don’t know.) But I don’t need to pry, beg, coerce, manipulate or otherwise use relational gymnastics to understand my children. I’m with them. I know them. I don’t have to ask “how was your day” and get a “fine” response from which I must tease truth. I know their friends. I know their mentors. I have relationships with people who are investing into my children. The structure of our days and our space supports positive and deep relationships with each other. I am a co-creator with my husband in making that space, in securing this perimeter, and my heart is beyond full with the satisfaction and connection I have with my children.

I am so deeply grateful for my evolving and deepening friendship with my life partner and love, Damien Tougas. We have come through some hard stuff but we are both committed to holding in our hearts and mind the best version of the other. We see truthfully what we are and what we aren't but also hope for things unseen and imagined. We are helping each other become the person each of us hopes to be. We are working to see something come to fruition in the other that is seeded and partially hidden, not yet grown, but is hoped for and believed in. Marriage is a kind of faith.

These two things I am most thankful for in my life. I have many, many more. The relationship with my parents, the closeness with my mom, dear friends who know and love me, the connections and community of church family and homeschool coop, experiences I've had, places I've lived, the ideas I have co-created and co-labored (with other people and the Spirit) into reality in the physical world, my list is growing and is more specific than I share here. What a rich, rich life.

The high holiday is almost upon us. My family's most significant holiday celebration of the year. I have two more posts in this series written and mostly ready to go. I will be posting those throughout the holiday, as I celebrate and contemplate the "things" most precious in my life.

If you have some reading and thinking time over the holidays (I hope you do!) I'd love to hear your thoughts.

First, do you know your personality type and what it looks like, internally and externally, to be expressing those traits from a healthy place?

Do you have a dominant life theme that arises from your personality and/or life trajectory?

What are your most precious evidences of grace in your life?


Christmas Stories: First Day of Skiing

These Christmas stories are supposed to be short on words, as much for my own sake, as for yours. So I'll try.

When we moved to Montreal from the Gaspe peninsula 18 months ago a lot changed. I've chronicled many of those changes here on the blog.

Our life is all about raising teenagers now: socially, spiritually, academically, we are heavily invested in this phase of family life. And for us, that means we no longer have a one day a week practice. It's just not feasible for us at this stage of family life, with homeschool co-op, social engagements (the life of teenagers), and a commitment to and involvement in a church body (something our kids want as much as, if not more, than Damien and I).

I have mourned the loss of this part of our family life and history. We grew our kids up hiking in the woods, summiting mountains all over the east coast, in New England and Quebec. Family life evolves and life in the city is full of good things and bountiful opportunities but I miss this.

Skiing together is something we've managed to hold on to, though it too has evolved over the years.

We started out as backcountry skiers, with a hodge-podge of equipment designed for gentle slopes. The following year we got more serious about climbing mountains (on skis) and we decided to improve our skill and work on technique with a ski pass to our local hill, which we happened to live at. (Yes, we lived at a ski hill). That particular year we did a lot of skiing.

The winter preceding our thru-hike we trained for our hike by regularly climbing up the ski hill (on skis) and skiing down. The winter after our thru-hike we decided we'd stick to the ski resort skiing, a couple people in our family were tired of climbing mountains.

This is our second winter in Montreal. We're currently a crew of 2 snowboarders, 2 telemark skiers, and one alpine skier. We haven't been in the backcountry together as a family for a while. But we still make an effort to ski together. And we juggle homeschool co-op, work (someone has to earn the money to pay for all this), church commitments, and social engagements to make this possible.

This is our sixth year on skis as a family. Because we are self-employed homeschoolers we take advantage of the deeply discounted mid-week seasons pass at Bromont. (And this year we purchased the passes in October to make it even more affordable.)

Depending on Celine's plans for next year this may be the last year we are able to do this once a week, all together. (I don't want to talk about it.) It will be another evolution, another change. I'll face it when the time comes. This winter we're all still together in the outdoors, and hanging out in the ski lodge, one day a week.

Learn to make soap (and nurture home, hearth and heart this winter)

I love to make soap, lotion, lip balm, and candles. I love puttering in my kitchen mixing up herbal remedies and health-supporting herbal tea. I love this part of homemaking. If I didn't write what I do, mostly memoir and introspection, I would write more about these interests and exploits.

This is a tension I feel in my writing, I have a strong desire to share soap recipes, herbal how-to's and similar health and homemaking content but I have a stronger cognitive, emotional, and spiritual need to write through my experiences. And we all know there is only so much time.

But sometimes the right opportunity presents itself to satisfy the desire I have to teach these skills.

This winter I am so pleased to be partnering with Heather Bruggeman to offer a soapmaking tutorial as part of her Hibernate Winter Retreat.

Winter is a great time to make soap. There's just something about fall and winter that stirs in people the desire to "make stuff". It's the increasing hours we spend indoors, it's the natural rhythm of preparing for and enduring winter.

For two winters now I have been singing the praises of Hibernate. Hibernate has been a winter game changer for me. Hibernate gave me the permission I needed to do what my body calls me to do in the heart of winter: burrow, rest, care for myself, drink lots of hot beverages, make things.

Hibernate has been more than a course, it's been a gentle "call to action" for me to honor my body's natural rhythms, live seasonally, nurture my creativity and grow my skill in domestic arts.

When I look back to that list I wrote of things I love about homemaking; making soap... candles, herbal remedies and tea mixes, the influence of Heather's courses is clear. It was three years ago, inspired by Hibernate content, that I started making my own herbal tea mixes. A skill I have since studied more, so that now, I confidently prepare specific blends for our family's winter health needs, using the right herbs for specific symptoms and support. (I'm excited to see that this year Rachel Wolf is offering herbal Winter Wellness recipes as part of Hibernate.)

My favorite candles, the ones I made a few weeks ago and have been burning daily, I learned that recipe from Heather. The herbal chai I've adapted to my own, that too started with a recipe from Hibernate. Throughout my home there are touches everywhere of Hibernate offerings: things I've made (felted bowls), art I've pursued (Hibernate introduced me to meditative drawing, which was the springboard into my own Zentangle practice), and ideas I've learned (my vision board).

Heather teaches hands-on, inspirational and practical, content-rich courses. So much content that you will need to pick and choose which lessons and projects, offered as stand-alone ebooks, one for each day of the course, you will embark on. There will be more in the course than you'll have time to do in the course period. But you'll have all the material, in those tidy little e-books and video teaching, everything you need to pick up a project or idea during the long weeks of winter. Of note, this year's Hibernate Online Retreat is all new content.

Where I live winter is long. And if we look at that positively, winter gives us lots of time to learn a new skill or incorporate a new homemaking habit or idea into our life.

I want to just say something here about having the heart of homemaker.

I am a homemaker. This is the work I love to do. I was raised by a homemaker and grew up surrounded by a community of women, my aunties, who were homemakers. Almost all these role models, my mother included, worked outside the home also, part-time or full-time, depending on the stage of family life, but these women made homes first and foremost. This is my heritage but it is also my heart.

I love nothing more than putzing around my house, tidying spaces, devising better systems of organizing. I love making beautiful and useful things for our home. Not a ton of things, we don't have the space and I lean to warm minimalism, as a style, if there is such a thing.

I don't love, nor do I put my hands to, all the tasks associated with traditional homemaking. I don't really like cooking. I'm not a baker. I don't quilt. I don't spend a lot of time or energy on decorating. I don't host the large gatherings I grew up watching my mother execute with aplomb. (My mother is amazing in her gifts of large gathering hospitality, she's my hero.)

I have grown into my own expression of homemaking, my own standards of homemaking. And what I consistently find is that Heather's courses meet me where I'm at, as they would meet the seamstress, the knitter, the cook, the baker, the candlestick maker.

But lest I give you the wrong impression, Hibernate is not just about homemaking, it's also about our emotional and physical well-being this time of year. It's about attending to yourself during the season of winter. Listening for the lessons of winter, enjoying what this season alone can offer us. It's not a "do more" message. Craft, quilt, knit, sew, cook, bake, host,... a frenzy of activity for the winter. Like Heather says, "Starting where you are, and working with what you have, you will pick and choose the projects, prompts, recipes and inspiration that speak to you."

Hibernate is about nurturing a certain kind of environment, in our hearts and our homes, as an expression of love for our families and ourselves. It's a retreat to help us create a physical space where our winter needs for rest, reflection, and creativity can be met.

When Heather asked if I'd like to contribute a soapmaking tutorial for this year's Hibernate retreat, I gave a hearty yes, delighted that I could contribute to such a great course.

I am so excited to share this tutorial with you. You may remember from a previous post that I had been working on a soapmaking course, but set it aside because I don't have the time in this life season to produce a complete course, as envisioned. But I so want to share some of that material with you, and Hibernate is the perfect place for doing that.

In addition to learning how to make soap, you will get all the other good stuff Heather teaches. Lucky you!

I have poured my heart, head, and hands into this soapmaking tutorial. I have created an easy, yet luscious, beginners recipe for you. I have tested this recipe repeatedly to minimize your risk. I have broken it all down, step-by-step, with photos, video, and written instructions so that you can make a lovely batch of soap with confidence and ease.

I want you to enjoy the beauty of homemade soap this winter. To learn a skill, a very old domestic art, that will bring enjoyment to your winter days and help nourish your dry skin.

I hope you'll join me at Hibernate.

You can find the full description of Hibernate 2017 here.

I have a little request, if you decide to join the class, could you please use this link to make your purchase? It's a Thank You page that says Hibernate 2017 Renee Tougas under Item. Heather and I are trying an affiliate arrangement* for this class and this link tracks those purchases for us. (Thanks, I really appreciate it.)

Heather prices her courses to make them as accessible as possible. As someone who has taken a few online courses, from various sources, I can tell you the value you receive from Heather's courses is well beyond the price you pay. I go back and reference material from her courses all the time.

In addition to this great value Heather offers a two-for-one special for the first few days of registration. She knows that you will want to share this material with a friend and she offers you a way to do this. That two-for-one deal ends 12/19.

Special note to my Canadian friends and readers: the exchange on the dollar is a killer for making purchases in US dollars. If you want to take this course but the exchange rate is too steep for you (I hear you!) take advantage of the two-for-one friend deal. Don't know anyone to split the cost with? Find a friend here on my blog.

Leave a comment that you want to split the cost with someone. I'd love to play matchmaker. Heather does the same thing on her blog. Comments are open for people to find friends to split the two-for-one cost. I am using comment moderation right now to control some spam problems but I will check diligently and approve comments as quickly as possible to expedite the process. Also email me renee at tougas dot net if I forget.

Right now, I am not offering this soapmaking tutorial as a stand alone product. For now, it is nested within Hibernate.

Hibernate Registation is open today and will remain open for approximately one month, till the course starts in mid-January. But for the next seven days only you purchase two-for-one registration. Pay the cost of one registration and you get access for two people. What a great holiday gift for a friend, sister, daughter, or mother.

If you want to learn how to make soap, if you want to participate in a beautiful winter retreat, if you're looking for ways to honor your body's seasonal rhythm, if you want to be part of a community of likeminded women (level of involvement is entirely up to you) who desire to create a health, relationship and soul-supporting home environment this winter, I do hope you'll join us for Hibernate.

* See this page for an explanation of affiliate arrangements.

Christmas Stories: The Dairy Queen sells Christmas Trees

Some of you have been to my neighborhood (and even stayed in my home in fact) during the summer months.

If you walk one block to the south, through the alley behind the Rona hardware store (in French, hardware store is called a quincaillerie, which I have yet to learn to pronounce), and then across the street you arrive at the Dairy Queen. Dangerously close to our house, if you ask me.

Ice cream shops in Montreal close from mid-fall through late spring. I suppose the ice cream shops in the many underground malls downtown stay open, but the neighborhood shops close. I like this.

In the month of December our local Dairy Queen is converted into a Christmas tree sales lot. I like this also.

I don't know how these arrangements get made, who owns the Dairy Queen, how the Christmas tree sellers find places to set up shop. But it makes so much sense.

In late November, I'll be walking to go get produce on Beaubien or pick up a book at the library on Rosemont and I'll walk past the parking lot, fence and wooden stands in place, empty, getting ready for Christmas.

And then the next time I am walking by, it might be later that week or the next, trees have appeared, as if by magic. To be sold to neighbors, living in these two and half story apartments, side-by-side, row upon row.

We're not getting a tree this year. We're going to Nova Scotia for Christmas and I don't want to spend the money, time or make the space necessary in our apartment to put up a tree when we won't be here for a good portion of our Christmas holiday.

But I can appreciate the trees in the neighborhood. The ones being sold by Le Père Sapin and the ones decorated in front of apartments and storefronts.

I am like the boy in this favorite mural of mine, also a feature of the Dairy Queen parking lot. Arms wide open to the beauty that is the month of December.

14 :: 41

The end of every November Brienne has a birthday, and then, sure as the spinning of the earth on which our birthdays depend, seven days later I too have a birthday. Exactly one week apart.

This year our birthdays fell on Fridays and were overshadowed by Walk to Bethlehem. Neither of us were too upset by that. Brienne lives to sing, act and be on stage, performing is a chance for her to express who she is and what she wants to contribute to her community and the world.

She's doing something she loves and that's a good way to spend a birthday, even if you're exhausted at the end of the day.

Brienne got this crocheted hat at Trail Days in Damascus, VA
while we were hiking the AT
she's grown so much since that hike, and a lot has changed in her life but she still has the hat
this year she added those adorable pom-pom ears

One week later I spent my birthday at homeschool co-op all day, then shuttling kids to cast call, attending the performance myself (a nearly three hour affair with the line-up and walk through), warming up and waiting till the last scenes wrapped up, then driving a car load of teens home after midnight.

My birth"day" didn't feel like it was about "me", but it didn't need to. I was deeply grateful for the opportunity to be so involved in my teens lives, to know their friends, to be the person who drives them home; a car of happy, chatting, healthy (in body and spirit) teenagers on a Friday night. I went to bed so very satisfied.

"She's doing something she loves and that's a good way to spend a birthday, even if you're exhausted at the end of the day."

We celebrated both of our birthdays with Saturday brunchs on our respective weekends, squeezed in between the previous late night and Saturday afternoon's cast call. I cooked a "by request" breakfast for Brienne's birthday and we gave gifts to the birthday girl, as is our tradition for our children's birthdays.

For my birthday Damien and I went out, while the kids slept, to a popular brunch restaurant in our neighborhood.

Damien's moccachino topped with toasted homemade marshmallow

I didn't eat much for the rest of the day after this breakfast

We've walked past this place many times, a line-up snaking out the door and around the corner. Behind the large glass windows tables are packed with satisfied customers eating gorgeous plates of food, sitting in plush velvet chairs. We've always wanted to try it. A birthday was a great opportunity.

This year Brienne and I are in the unique situation of having our ages be the inverse of each other. She is fourteen and I am forty-one. This is the first time this has happened. I did the math, this pattern that will now repeat for us every 11 years. So in eleven years I'll be 52 and she will be 25, another eleven years 63 and 36...74 and 47, 85 and 58, (96 and 69?)

I checked briefly to see if I share this numerical relationship with the other two kids, and it appears I don't. (I could be wrong, I didn't spend a lot of time in the numbers.)

What is sobering is that the next time we have an inverse birthday Brienne will be a woman. She could easily be married, possibly a mother. I was a mother at her age. When she's 25 I will be 52. Completely done raising and homeschooling my children. In a different phase. A phase completely unknown to me.

Both possibilities, Brienne being a 25 year old woman and me a 52 year old woman, is in our future and yet what that future holds is so uncertain. I don't even know what the next year holds.

Which is one of the reasons I am so grateful for life right now, in this "moment" of three teenagers and performances, and driving, and homeschool co-op. I am so thankful for these years I still have with my children, invested deeply and actively in all the comings and goings. My children, my heart, they will grow up, but they aren't yet, and that maybe is the best birthday present for me.

Christmas Stories: Walk to Bethlehem

I love taking pictures this time of year. The quality of light is so beautiful, especially on a sunny afternoon. January is actually my favorite month for photographing the winter light, but December is chock full of festivities and decorations of the holiday season, the twinkly lights and trees, and (hopefully) snow. All of which beg to be photographed.

I do my best to oblige and heed the call to capture that beauty. But because my posts these days tend to be wordy and take weeks to publish from start to finish, the potential exists for a lot of that December beauty to stay stuck on my computer instead of being shared here.

So I'm going to try something this month called Christmas stories, which will be posts featuring a compilation of photos around an idea or experience of the holiday season. They will be mostly photos, not very many words.

I'll start today.

Brienne was in a theatrical production this Christmas season called Walk to Bethlehem. There were weekly rehearsals through the last half of October and all of November. Production weekends fell on her birthday and then again the following week, on mine. Which definitely changed the flavor of our birthday celebrations this year but hey, we were celebrating someone else's birthday.

There are heat lamps and fire pits to keep us warm while we wait in line

Walk to Bethlehem is an outdoor production and is a popular holiday outing and tradition, thousands of people attended this year. Walk to Bethlehem has a large cast of actors and singers and it brings together people from all over the area to make it happen. It was a gathering place for many of our church and homeschool coop friends, spread out as we are around the Montreal region.

Our friend Micah is angel Gabriel

the kids gym teacher from homeschool coop in the same scene as Brienne
B's drama teacher plays John the Baptist in this scene

B is on the far right