(Almost) Autumn Hikes and Room to Breathe

It’s almost autumn. The mid-afternoon sun is hot, and in the orchard, sleepy cows rest in the shade of an apple tree. Although the tree is old and gnarled, its leaves are still green and plump fruit hangs red. Near the fence, thistles are bursting with wisps of seed waiting to be caught in the breeze. A hawk rests on a fence post then startles when we come close to snap a picture.

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My husband takes my hand and the children run ahead of us, climbing tree stumps and shouting excitedly over berries and chipmunk holes and anything else that catches their fancy. The path splits and we swerve right so we can head through the cool of the forest to the creek.

In the woods, the girls have stopped at a patch of touch-me-nots. Some of the seed pods are fat and ripe, and through semi-translucent skins you can see black seeds inside. The slightest touch will cause the pods to explode and the seeds to fly every which way, eliciting peals of startled laughter from the children. It’s a game, one that results in a handful of tiny seeds to plant in the backyard at home.

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Past signs warning of giant hogweed, the stream splashes between muddy banks. A man is standing in the water. “Over there,” he points. “There’s a big fish. A salmon.” Only the dorsal fin can be seen, and as it cuts the surface, it seems autonomous, slithering back and forth like a speckled snake.

We take off our shoes and socks and wade into the cold water, our feet slipping on algae-covered rocks. I am the first to reach the fish. I forget that last year I lectured the girls at length about the importance of staying out of the water when the salmon are spawning. Heedlessly, I snap a photo then shriek as the salmon lunges towards me with a splash. In a moment, it is past me—upstream and out of sight.

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Out here, in the beauty of creation, I also forget that I’ve been wrestling with hard questions. Sometimes it feels like the closeness of the city closes my heart. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but when I’m outside exploring, the world seems right somehow. All these things—the trees, the thistles, the wildflowers, the salmon—they remind me of just how big God is.

“We need to get back,” my husband says all too soon. I want to stay here forever but he’s right. The way we hike, it will be a while before we get to the car. Sure enough, we stop to watch a green caterpillar munch on a leaf. At the fork in the trail, we spot a wild turkey beside the path. Tiptoeing, the girls and I try unsuccessfully to sneak close. It runs down the path and into the underbrush. We head over to the cows instead, and the girls feed them fistfuls of long grass through the fence.

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When we finally arrive back at the parking lot, I look through the assortment of wild things that have been stuffed inside my camera case: the touch-me-not seeds, three prickly wild cucumbers to dissect later, one round and sticky burr that my daughter wishes to examine under a microscope, and a beautiful striped feather, presumably from a turkey.

These treasures, they make me smile. They are signs of a heart-good day.

Gifts from a big, beautiful God.

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A Drive Down Memory Lane

Sometimes the simplest things make the most special memories.

Every now and then, when I was a child, my parents would load me and my sisters into the station wagon and drive out into the country to Hamilton Airport. Somewhere on the property, there was a little parking lot with a view of the runway. We would pile out of the car and plaster our faces against the chain-link fence, eagerly watching the airplanes take off and land.

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Now I have my own family. Tonight, as we ate dinner in the backyard, there seemed to be a steady stream of planes flying overhead. My girls were so busy watching the sky that they could barely choke down their supper. So my husband and I decided to take them on an impromptu evening drive to the airstrip.

Hamilton Airport hasn’t changed much since I was a kid, although a large hangar has replaced the little parking lot. However, there are still plenty of places to watch the runway.

My youngest daughter was a little scared by the size of the planes and the roar of the engines. But my oldest daughter, always the adventurer, thought it was the greatest thing in the world.

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On the way home, we spotted some sheep grazing in a small pasture. My husband pulled over so the girls could take a closer look.

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We could have just given our kids their after-dinner bath and put them to bed at a decent hour. But I’ve learned from my own childhood that, sometimes, making memories is more important.

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I’m grateful for a mom and a dad that took time to make even the simple things special. I try hard to do that for my own kids. My parents taught me that you don’t need an expensive outing or an epic adventure.

Just being together is enough.

A Salvaged Feast – Grace in the Mess

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Last night’s moment of grace was cleverly disguised. It began in the morning. My gut instinct said, “Don’t put alfredo sauce in the crock pot.” But I did it anyway. Even before I left for work, I could see that it was a mistake.

Sure enough, when I got home, I lifted the lid of the slow cooker with trepidation. The contents were more pathetic than I imagined. The alfredo sauce looked like water. The broccoli was mushy and overcooked. There were burn marks around the edges of the pot. It was disgusting. Horribly nasty. Really stinky. Completely inedible.

It was the perfect opportunity to go out for dinner.

So we bundled up the kids and drove to a restaurant. We haven’t done that in forever. What a fabulous outing! The kids were well-behaved, the food was great and we even had enough time to grab a latte before our evening class at church. It was a splurge … but it felt so ridiculously good!

Why on the earth am I blogging about last night’s dinner? Because sometimes life gets messy. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we plan them. Sometimes we make mistakes and ruin more than just dinner.

But we don’t have to wallow in those moments.

Right?

Just like my ruined dinner became a wonderful family time, our ruined plans can pave the way for better things. Mistakes can change our direction in life. An ugly mess can become a thing of beauty.

It’s all in how we respond.

Recognizing “moments of grace” in our lives has everything to do with our attitude.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1:2, NIV)

Why joy? Because “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28, NIV)

Jesus came to give us an abundant, full life (John 10:10). So no matter how big or small the circumstance, we need to remember to look to Him, the giver of all good gifts.

Although my ruined dinner hardly qualifies as a trial, it challenged me. Next time I face a something difficult or mess things up, will I wallow in discouragement? Or will I turn to Jesus, embrace joy and find grace in the mess?

The Thankfulness Tree

Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Thanksgiving. We were just about to leave for a family hike when the phone rang. It was the hospital calling my husband into work. The sun was bright, the air was crisp and the red and gold trees were breathtaking. I wanted to be outside with my family, all of us together. Instead, I found myself maneuvering through traffic, a disappointed husband beside me and two children crying in the back seat.

I was angry at the way things had turned out. It wasn’t that my husband had to work – we need the extra shift. It’s just that it has been a crazy season of life and I was looking forward to having some long overdue family time. (Sometimes I’m such a whiner! LOL)

I heard a sermon on thankfulness the other night that really resonated. So as I drove my husband to work, I began asking Jesus, “What can I do to shift my attitude?”

It wasn’t until I was on my way home from the hospital that it hit me. What if we took some time to make a “thankfulness tree”? We could put it somewhere prominent where it could serve as a visual reminder to “be thankful in all circumstances”.

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As soon as we got home, I bundled up the girls in the stroller and we headed off to the park to collect sticks for our tree.

As we walked, I began to talk to my two-year old about thankfulness. “What kinds of things can we say thank you to Jesus for?”

“My new suitcase and my piggytail!” She exclaimed. “Paige’s Bible. Daddy. Aunt ‘Kissnina’.”

We had such fun at the park. My toddler and I looked for sticks, crunched in the leaves and chased squirrels (well, she chased squirrels). My one-year old watched us, smiling and babbling at our antics.

When we got home, I arranged our sticks in a vase. While the girls napped, I cut simple leaf shapes out of decorative paper and tied them to ribbons. In the evening, after my husband returned from work, we sat down at the table and wrote on the leaves.

“Laughter.”

“My lovely wife and my daughters.”

“Grandma and Papa.”

“My home.”

Each leaf a blessing. Blessing after blessing. Leaf after leaf. They hang there, beautiful, symbols of gratitude.

The tree, too, is a symbol. The branches were barren, blown down by the wind, useless. But now they also have purpose and beauty. They are barren no longer.

The Thankfulness Tree serves as a reminder that God always brings beauty to the barren times of life. Even when things don’t turn out the way we expect, God is still good.

Canoeing the Desjardins

“The blessing of the Lord makes rich …” (Proverbs 10:22)

We had dinner out on the water yesterday. It was spontaneous and special. We threw the canoe on the car, packed the girls in the back, and drove off into the Hamilton wilderness. (That would be Cootes Paradise, for those of you who are scratching your heads and wondering where on the earth a canoe-worthy wilderness exists around here.)

I spoon-fed our seven-month old as my husband steered us down the Desjardins Canal with all the skill (and good looks) of a gondolier. Our two-year old, who was sitting behind me, splashed her very own toddler-sized paddle in the water while munching on a peanut butter sandwich.

As we glided along, two otters came and swam alongside the bow. Deer crept softly to the water’s edge and stooped to drink. They bounded into the woods with a crash when my daughter began to talk. A choir of songbirds sang, and frogs called to each other with voices that sounded like the twanging of a banjo. The music of nature is always the most beautiful.

Everywhere we looked, there were birds. There were swallows dancing through the air, pairs of swans nesting in the reeds, and red-wing blackbirds flitting among the bulrushes. Terns dive-bombed the water with a splash and then took to the sky again. Geese flew so low overhead that we could hear their wings slapping the air.

A man and his son canoed in tandem with us for a while, strangers, but with the instant camaraderie that is common among paddlers. They told us that a pair of bald eagles was nesting in the area. We swapped wilderness adventure stories while scanning the treeline for the iconic birds of prey. We didn’t see them.

The sky grew rosy as the sun began to sink on the horizon. It was long past the girls’ bedtime. Tired but happy, we paddled back to the car and drove home. Another day over. Another memory to cherish.

As I lay in bed last night and slowly drifted off to sleep, I couldn’t help but think that life is full.

Road Trip – Creating Lasting Memories

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The kids were safely buckled in their car seats. In the front, tucked behind my feet, was a bag filled with muffins, sandwiches, water bottles, and fruit. The diaper bag was stocked and we had toys to keep the girls occupied on the long drive.

My husband climbed into the car and looked at me.

“So, where do you want to go?” he asked.

Silence.

“I don’t know.” I finally replied. “Either north or south.”  I sat for a moment and savoured the pull of the open road, the fact that a whole day stretched in front of us in which we could go anywhere and do anything.

We flipped a coin and headed south.

We wound our way along the shores of Lake Erie through vast tracts of farmland and tiny port towns – stopping to explore marinas and watch gulls. We detoured to out-of-the-way historical landmarks that were nestled amongst orchards and berry fields. We pulled over at a roadside stand and bought some plump, crimson strawberries and deep red cherries. They melted in my mouth, their sweetness trickling down my throat.

At one point, we drove along a causeway, a narrow road with the lake on one side and a seemingly endless marsh on the other. We turned into a small parking lot, got out of the car, and stretched. A creaky gate led into the marsh. I pushed it open and discovered a path that meandered through the tall reeds. We followed it, the afternoon sun warm on our heads. It was glorious – a secret world filled with the trill of birds, the guttural voices of deep-throated frogs, and the whir of dragonfly wings.

We got back in the car and continued on. Pioneer cemeteries, an old grist mill, a peanut farm – we stumbled upon some of the neatest things. It was an amazing day.

Our road trip yesterday reminded me of my own childhood. Many times, I sat in the backseat with my sisters and listened to the hum of the car as it sped through fields and over mountains, along oceans and through forests. My Mom always sat in the front with the map open on her lap, my Dad behind the wheel. I treasure those memories.

My husband and I want to ensure that our children, too, will have a legacy of beautiful moments to treasure. So, every now and then, we pack the family into the car and go wherever the road takes us. And we create memories that all of us will forever hold close.

The Grass is Greener Right Here!

This morning, with sad little tears trickling down my cheeks, I turned to my husband and said, “Don’t you sometimes miss life before kids? Back when it was just us and we could take road trips and do all kinds of fun things whenever we wanted?”

My husband, who adores his little girls more than just about anything, looked at me strangely. “Nope,” he replied. “Being a parent is the best!”

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He was right, of course, and I knew it. But a girl that I know is going on a road trip with her husband down the California coastline and it looks so amazing and it’s not fair and blah, blah, blah. The last time we attempted a vacation, the four-hour drive took eight hours and we ended up coming straight back home the next day because our daughter had pneumonia. So, although envy is a sin, I sure was struggling with it today!

The grass is always greener on the other side, right? Wrong. Psalm 23 says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need. He lets me rest in green meadows …” The grass is greenest right where we’re at.

Rather than waste my day by continuing to act ridiculously, I decided that we were going to enjoy our little patch of green grass by having a fun “staycation”. We would intentionally make some special memories.

My husband and I packed up the kids in the stroller and walked to the park. Then we let loose. We ran and kicked our legs and twirled around. We went into the greenhouses and saw the flowers and turtles and birds and fish. We chased squirrels up trees. We went to the playground, saw some old friends, made some new friends, and … um … even I climbed up the ladders and went down the slides a couple of times (with one of the girls on my lap, of course … and I didn’t get stuck this time).

When we came back home, I put a bin of water outside and we splashed around in it. We put up the tent and blew bubbles and played in the sandbox and had a picnic.

The girls are now napping. Meanwhile, my husband went to the store and bought some chocolate ice cream and waffle cones. I’m anxiously awaiting the end of nap-time (I don’t think I’ve ever said that before!) so that we can have our treat.

I could have continued to let envy rob me of my joy. But I didn’t. You see, no matter what stage you are at in life, there are blessings all around. God lavishes His love on us every single day in a million different ways.

This morning, I chose to look for and delight in God’s blessings. Now that I’m midway through one of the most fun days I’ve had in a long time, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t trade my life for the world.

Where’s the Sizzle?

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Remember when you first met your spouse and your heart would flip-flop whenever you looked at them? Enter kids. I’m going to be a terrible person and say straight up what every new parent thinks: children are an absolute blessing, but they are also a wet blanket.

At the end of the day, when the kids are finally asleep, my husband and I usually flop down exhausted on opposite ends of our couch. We spend an hour or so staring blankly at each other before stumbling up to bed.

The other night, we decided it was time to do something drastic. It was time to recapture the romance. We had it all planned out. We would put the kids to bed early and then spend some time together, just us. Quality time. No television, no computer, no comic books (um, that last one applies to him, not me). Sounds like a dream come true, eh?

You know what happened? As soon as we put our three-month old to bed, she began to cry. She cried. And she cried. And she cried some more. She cried into the late hours of the night. Our evening was spent trying to console her – except that she was inconsolable.

You know what happened when she finally calmed down? We flopped down exhausted on opposite ends of our couch and spent an hour or so staring blankly at each other before stumbling up to bed.

I’m thinking that it’s time to: (a) teach our littlest darling how to take a bottle … so that we can (b) find a sitter within our budget (which would be free – any volunteers?). Then we can go out for a nice walk and just spend some uninterrupted time together.

So now it’s your turn. All you other new parents out there, what do you do to keep the pizazz in your relationship?

Story Time Activities

From the Government of Nova Scotia Parks Website

Lately I’ve been on a quest for some fun, educational activities to do with my 17-month old. I suppose that kids should just be allowed to play. After all, my childhood was pressure-free. But still, I’d like to think of some ways to incorporate learning into playtime.

I found a few different ideas. Unfortunately, since I have no idea where I found them, I can’t credit the source. However, I’m going to share my take on them.

First of all is storytime. My daughter is a wiggly worm, so getting her to sit still for an entire story can be a challenge. So I choose short, to-the-point books with graphics that she will enjoy. She prefers books with photographs in them or touch-and-feel books.

To augment the stories, we colour pictures or do activities that relate to the stories. Okay, let me rephrase that. We haven’t done much of this yet, but that’s because I only got the idea last week. There are TONS of free, online resources that offer free colouring pages and free activity ideas on a variety of themes. So if our book of the day is Usborne’s “That’s not my Rabbit!”, we’ll colour some rabbit pictures, scrunch up our noses and make bunny faces, and pretend to hop to music.

Last week, while running my friend’s daycare for a day, we read “Bear Hunt”. We did actions to the story, coloured bear pictures, sang bear songs, and hid bears in the backyard so we could go on a “real” bear hunt. I also made a bear puppet and brought along a realistic-looking stuffed bear. All of the kids had a lot of fun. I’ll admit, I had a blast as well.

Using internet resources, there is no end to the activities that you can find to augment story time. Most of the activities use materials on hand, making them budget-friendly as well. But, most importantly, there is no end to the fun that you can have as you do these things together.

The Importance of Family Day

 
Family Day - May 31/11

One thing that the pastoral staff at my church always do is take one day a week (in their case it’s Mondays) as family day. In the busyness of full-time ministry, they ensure that they set aside weekly time for their spouses and children.

Although my husband and I work secular jobs, we found that we were spending our days off running errands, going out with people, and visiting relatives. So we decided to follow our pastors’ example by setting aside a day a week as “family day” – a day just for us.

What a difference this one day has made! Where before there was a lot of stress and tension in our family, we have seen it melt away completely over the last couple of months. Our marriage, which had been going through a bit of a rocky patch, is now better than ever. Our relationship with our daughter has changed and we have a lot more patience in dealing with the challenges of the toddler stage. We laugh together quite a bit these days. Our family life has been completely transformed.

Why is it important to set aside a day for family? Why can it make such a difference in the family dynamic?

God establishes the importance of family from the very beginning of creation, and it starts with the marriage relationship. He said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). After creating the world, the next thing that God did was create the first marriage. This clearly shows the importance He places on the husband-wife relationship.

Bill Hanawalt, pastor of the Vineyard Christian Church in Evanston Illinois, says, “Marriage without friendship cannot work in our culture.” The key to establishing a strong friendship with your spouse is to spend time together pursuing common interests. Family day (not to be a substitute for date night, which is another topic for another time) is one way to pursue those common interests. This will help to solidify your relationship.

After creating Adam and Eve, God went on to command them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Families have been an important part of God’s plan since the beginning of time. But it goes one step further than just having a family. In Deuteronomy, the Bible says, “These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). How can you teach your children if you do not spend time together? God does not suggest that we spend time with our children. He commands it.

In his article “Family Time and Relationships” (Focus on the Family Magazine, February 2008), Jim Burns says that “…a strong family identity also helps children develop a strong and healthy self-identity.” He goes on to say, “Children regard your presence as a sign of care and connectedness.” Spending time together creates a healthy family environment in which children thrive because they have the security of knowing that they are loved.

I’ve learned from personal experience that family time should not consist of what “leftovers” you have after fulfilling your other obligations. It should be a priority in your life. If you are unable to take a day a week to spend together, then schedule a day every two weeks or once a month. The important thing is that it is consistent so that your children know to expect it and can build up a sense of anticipation for it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll also find yourself counting down the days in between.

Don’t underestimate the value of taking a day to relax and have fun together as a family. Family time helps strengthen your marriage and creates an environment in which your children can flourish. In our experience, the difference it has made in the way we relate to one another is incredible.