How to Remind Yourself of Who You Want to Be

A sense of dread and awkwardness fills the van as we pull up to the reunion.

“Why are we coming to this thing?” one daughter asks, pulling suitcases from the trunk. “We should’ve stayed home or gone to Grandma’s house.”

“Yah, we’ve never even been to South America!” adds another one.

Our kids are here because we made them come. Stan and I are here because, along with everyone else at this gathering, we volunteered with Mennonite Central Committee in Bolivia. Some attendees overlapped with our terms of service (1999-2004) but many others are from different eras.

“This will be great,” I say halfheartedly, while sweat trickles down my chest. I push my sunglasses on top of my head so I can greet people in a few moments, but even I’m starting to wonder why we made the trip when I open the doors to the retreat centre. The lobby is full of people, most of whom I’ve never met, and our family of five maneuvers through the crowd to get to the registration table and pick up a key to our room as quickly as possible. It feels like we need to regroup already.

Once we unlock our door, the kids and I survey the space; worn grey carpets, thin mattresses, a bulky TV from the eighties, plain grey walls with no pictures and a line of cabinets, circa 1960.

“Mmm, this is authentic,” I say. “It’s hot out and the hotel is just a wee bit nicer than most hotels we stayed at in Boli.”

Susanna is checking out the linoleum tile and pokes her head out of the bathroom. “Well I never want to go to Bolivia then!”

After gathering to eat, after singing a prayer together (a doxology in 4-part harmony almost like this:) ), after group introductions and watching row after row of people come forward to talk about the small villages and cities where they volunteered in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2000’s, after catching up with people I hadn’t seen in more than 15 years, memories begin to stir…

The setting sun throwing shadows on the San Juan mountainside; how the hills became a giant piece of emerald velour carpet, crumpled with canyons and creeks, vines and trees. The smell of baking bread in a wood-fired clay oven, a mix of yeast, hot clay and smoke. The fresh milk squirted straight into my cup under the cow’s teat–immediately mixed with a shot of alcohol and sugar. The nausea of 12-hour bus-rides; winding through switchbacks up and down the infamous Inca Wasi to get to our home in Taperillas. The kiss-and-hug greeting in the city, the traditional arms-length pat-pat in the villages. The red dirt in which we grew Lab-Lab beans and tomatoes. Making almuerzo with our roommate Juan, squatting on the cement floor slicing onions. The wild honey. The walking. And walking. And more walking. The women who became my mothers, sisters, friends and confidantes when I had never felt more alone. The chicha, oh the ubiquitous chicha–a sweet, fermented drink made of chewed corn and saliva. The horse races in the chaco. The day-trips to town for a backpack full of grocery staples.

The next evening of the retreat is filled with stories and Bolivian folk songs. “Viva Santa Cruz!” we all stand up and shout, while looking out at the Winnipeg river and the Canadian shield. Stan sings and plays his favourite taquirari, Sombrero de Sao. Rene holds his hands high and claps when Brisa and Helena sing the cueca Moto Mendez; another lady waves a white handkerchief to the rhythm. Later that night, while getting ready for bed, my three-year-old sits on the potty and sings earnestly. It’s all gibberish, with a rhyme or two, and a melody I don’t recognize. I raise my eyebrows and look at Stan.

“She’s singing in Spanish, just like everyone else,” he informs me.

By this time it’s beginning to dawn on my why we came to the retreat. We came because we need to remind ourselves who we are and what has shaped us. We came because we wanted to be inspired by the farmers, professors, artists, business people, kids and wanderers who landed up in Bolivia alongside, or before, us. We came because we wanted to speak Spanish and eat empanadas. We came because we wanted to rub shoulders again with adventurers, dreamers and doers who are willing to explore other cultures. We came because we needed to visit with people who are passionate about social justice. We came because we wanted our children to see that there is more to this world than the small, prairie town where we currently live.

And yet, when someone asks me if we will take our family to live abroad, I’m not sure what to say.

“Of course, that was the plan,” I say. “It’s always been the plan, but somehow it’s not happening.” I pause. “My wanderlust has a hyper-local focus these days.” It’s true that I’m more interested in the bacteria growing in my compost pile, or the neighbour who just immigrated to Canada, than moving across the world. In fact, it seems unlikely we’ll be going anywhere when there is so much happening right where we are.

The person who asked the question nods and seems to understands, even though he took his own children to live in Bolivia.

We need to gather in groups like this where it’s easy to understand and be understood. To find our people. Whether they be scrap-bookers, gamers, Young Living distributors or whatever. In fact, if you’re like me “your people” aren’t constituted by a single group. Some are likely family members or classmates from years gone by. Some might be work buddies or old friends. Where ever they are they remind you of who you are and what you want.

My people certainly aren’t perfect, and this particular reunion wasn’t even that long. And yes, the first few moments were painful. Yes, it took energy to meet and greet and reconnect. Yes, I got tired of talking. But it was worth it. I remembered again who I want to be.

An adventurer.

Passionate for social justice.

All because of Jesus.


Taperillas community store, 2002; Don Pascual and I are helping with accounting.

Thanks to all of you at MCC who taught me and continue to inspire me!



Steamy Kitchen Windows

The temperature has plummeted overnight, but it’s cozy inside our kitchen and already the windows are starting to fog up. We’ve been busy at the stove, starting the morning off with french toast and tea. Even though I smother my pieces with peanut butter, bananas, real whipped cream and maple syrup, I notice the poppy seeds on the crust. I like the nutty flavour and make a mental note to buy the same kind of bread again. It’s that easy. I taste something I like and decide I want it again without thinking twice. No problem.

After breakfast, Stan sends the girls downstairs to get potatoes for Edna Ruth Byler’s Cinnamon Roll recipe. While the potatoes soften in our pressure cooker, my husband stands at the kitchen counter, hands poised at the keyboard ready to re-vamp our meal planning. At my request, my sister sent me the running record she keeps of all the meals she’s made for her family. The entries are divided into categories (beef, chicken, vegetarian, other, etc.,) so Stan reads off the recipes and waits for our responses. “Asian salad bowl? What’s that?”

“Yes! Leave it on. It’s like fresh spring rolls,” I say, bouncing Vivi on my lap, waiting for the next one.

“Mushroom Quinoa Lasag…”

“Nooooooooo!” the girls interrupt in unison, while dancing on the couch for their sister.

The keyboard clicks in response.

When we finish with the revised list I’m tempted to appear casual and nonchalant. It’s taken Stan ten years of suggestion to bring me to this level of organization–and I’ve resisted it the whole way. I’ve often countered his attempts with a superior tone, pointing out how I’m free-spirited and thrifty; able to think on my feet in the grocery aisle, and creative with discount items. But now that he’s still buying the groceries he figures he’s got a little more leverage and so here we are, reviewing a list including everything from chickpea coconut curry to enchiladas. The maddening part is I’m pleased. I can’t even pretend my fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants method is easier, or even tastier. I’m also reminded how much choice we have in what we eat. Mexican food one day then Tanzanian the next? Fruit from all corners of the globe? Fresh vegetables even though it’s -40? No problem.


The potato dough is soon ready to knead and while Belén, Susanna and Stan have a circus with gluten, I start chopping onions for the slow cooker. We’ll have beef vegetable stew flavoured with rosemary for tonight’s supper. They fold and stretch the batter until satiny, while I wonder how much meat to add. One pack isn’t quite enough so I open up the other package I pulled out of the freezer. No problem.


And then, because the smell of cinnamon and sugar and yeast (this is their annual bake-with-wheat-flour event) almost drives me crazy, I start working on my own gluten-free version. I’m not sure I have all the ingredients–the pecans are the best part of this recipe–so I go to the pantry to check. There’s a kilo of pecans on the bottom shelf. No problem.

While dough rises we start watching Living on One. I thought we might be able to clean up while listening to the documentary in the background, but now that the film is rolling, all of us are standing stock-still, eyes on the screen. Created by four college students, the documentary shows what it was like for them to live on one dollar per day in rural Guatemala, “battling hunger, parasites, and extreme financial stress but find[ing] hope in the inspiring lives of our neighbors.” I’m skeptical at first–what good can privileged 19-year-olds who go “camping” for a couple months do?–but am soon softened by their storytelling. Much of it reminds me of our years spent in Bolivia; the diarrhea, the fleas, and hitching rides through lush canyons. Like them, I also benefited from my neighbours generosity: Doña Sabina and the warm tamales from her clay oven, Doña Estela teaching me how to wash clothes by hand, and Don Juan’s stories of indentured servant-hood for Spanish hacienderos. At one point during the movie I tear up and Belén turns to study my face. “Are you crying, Mom? Why are you crying? Wait. Guys! Mom’s crying.”

I’m thinking of Dona Lucia’s resilience when she admitted she doesn’t always know how she will feed her children the next day. I’m thinking of Antonio’s laughing eyes when he told me he knows what it’s like to fall asleep with an empty stomach. I’m thinking of the fourteen and fifteen year-old mothers who will never see a high school textbook or read a novel. But I’m also thinking of wild honey found in the woods, the peanut harvest, fresh eggs, wandering chickens, wild horses, waterfalls, watermelons, and women who bathe, cook, tend children, do laundry, pick lice, gossip, laugh and do all of life together. In fact, I can’t really explain why I’m crying. It’s not pity, exactly. I understand material wealth, education, and opportunity don’t guarantee well-being. All I know is my kitchen windows are steamy with abundance, while brave and wise people, real people, go without enough.

A while later Susanna says, “Sometimes I just want to rush out and give everyone money. Everyone who needs it.”

Her dad says, “That’s nice; I just want to clarify though… Whose money?”

“Your money,” she responds without a beat. And then, “But I don’t know where to find them.”

I know what she means. When people, like us, can reach for anything we need, no problem, while others reach but grasp nothing, there is a problem. And yet, what can we do? How do we find these people? Which causes do we donate to? Does the money even get there anyway? If it does, might it do more harm than good? And shouldn’t we be investing in the needy close to home? The marginalized in our own neighbourhoods?

The cinnamon buns are ready. We have a taste test; mine versus theirs. “Oh, it’s so close. Neck and neck,” Stan reports after trying them both. “I’d say it’s a tie.” If he’s feeling amorous, he’s in luck. That compliment takes him to first base at least. I love it when people pretend my gluten-free baking is delicious.


Gluten-free cinnamon bun ring with Edna’s rolls in the background. See highlighted link for recipe. It’s a winner!

The next day we will wake up to full cupboards once again. We will pick one dinner, out of the 72 options we’ve typed out, and then sit down to our meal made for four–though we could stretch our food stores to feed 140. But we will be thankful. We will pray. Susanna will go on-line to look for another sponsor child. We will feel content with our square footage, with our furniture, with our opportunities. We will remember what we watched and talk about it again. We will give. We will feel life is unfair. We will feel lucky. We will feel helpless. We will feel burdened. We will feel ourselves slip into the sea of everyday excess. We will go down with our eyes open to keep from drowning in our comforts and the apathy that runs deep. We will hope some of this makes a difference. And we will eat cinnamon buns.

Shadows and Light

Our yearly weather patterns don’t fit neatly into four seasons. I think we need at least six seasons to describe the climate around here, so I’ve decided to add a few of my own that take us on a journey across the continent, without leaving our home address. First there’s stereotypical autumn, lasting until about the middle of October. Then there’s what I call West Coast winter; the grass is still green but it’s cold, damp and rainy. After that we move into Indiana winter; light snowfall that doesn’t stay, puddles wearing thin shields of ice, and naked trees. During Indiana winter you might wear a toque, or even long underwear if you’re particularly well prepared, but it’s not crucial for your survival or sanity. And then finally, we get winter winter. The eyelash-freezing, snow-drifting, tongue-stuck-to-the-monkey bars kind of winter.

Currently we’re in Indiana winter but it won’t last much longer and we all know what’s coming. Frankly, even though I play my little geographical mind game to remind me of family living other places, November is taking it’s toll. It’s not that I dread the oncoming winter winter (February is actually one of my favourite months) or that I’m dealing with a clinical presentation of SAD. It’s that I can’t keep the kitchen counter clean, Lief has brain cancer, Sandra had an affair–and so did Robert and Nathan, Stan didn’t like the gourmet pizza I made last night, Erin is in the ER with anxiety attacks, we don’t have enough space for our shoes in our back entrance, Becky lives alone and is estranged from her family, my hair is getting thinner, I need the teeth-retainer I lost 19 years ago, there’s a world-wide phoshorous crisis nobody’s addressing, and I don’t have enough time to get my ironing done. See, I told you it’s not clinical.

When I lived in San Juan del Potrero, I used to climb the mountain behind the village to observe the shadows and light in the creases of the hills around me. The town lay like a pair of shoes beneath the ruffled skirt of the mountain range; the canyons, ridges and canopy of trees forming the folds of her petticoats. Had their been no contrast between the shadows and light to emphasize the contour of the land, the vista wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic. When I took my beau up to the pass once, I told him, “It’s the shadows and light that make it so pretty.” (He understood what I meant, which is one of the reasons why I married him.)

I’ve already mentioned some of the shadows I’ve been noticing during these grey November days, so here’s some light. After all, where there are shadows there must be light…

Grandmas who come for a sleepover–for no reason

The thrill of piecing together loose thoughts, jingling around in my brain, with a string of words

Lucy, smiling in a pile of of rotting leaves before she has to go back to her sterile hospital room**

A storyteller, along with the Saskatoon symphony, whose live performance of this script elicits laughs and tears***

Early morning walks in the dark, on a snowy path illuminated by the moon

A sister who calls often enough so that menial subject matter qualifies as a reason to make a phone call (Hello? Hi, I was just wondering if I should I go to bed or wash dishes? Obviously, the correct answer–the one we consistently give each other–is Go to bed, but the dishes always end up getting washed during the course of the phone call)…

I realize my light-and-shadows theory isn’t unique. There must be a million blogs that publish gratitude lists, or encourage readers to be appreciative and mindful. And recognizing the dark and challenging side of life, though slightly less common, is the task of every writer, reader… and human. We all know plenty of honest writers and friends whose stories are meaningful because they share the whole story, both the good and the bad. But sometimes being unique isn’t as important as being thankful, especially in the middle of November when the shadows are are long.

Here’s to the strength, creativity and Grace we need to see the light next to the shadows. Thank you for reading both my lists,


*Most of the names in this post have been changed but the details are true.

**See another post about her here

***Nothing really serious, or sad, occurs in the show. Sometimes tears are an involuntary response when one note is played beside another.


There’s nothing quite like leaving your baby for the first time. The day after Susanna was born I went for a walk, by myself. As cars passed and pedestrians crossed my path, I wondered if everyone knew what had just happened. Did they know why I was shuffling along slower than usual? Could they sense I’d given birth, just hours ago, on my own bed only a block, or two, away? My tender abdomen and swollen breasts reminded me of my recent labour and on one hand, it seemed ridiculous my feat wasn’t obvious to passersby. On the other hand, it was my own precious secret.

As people went on with their ho-hum lives, answering phone calls and filling up their cars with gas, I had brought a new human being to this world. When Susanna gulped her first molecules of oxygen, and I lay shaking with exhaustion and wet with sweat, my neighbour was probably feeding her cats or sweeping the floor. While the rest of world went on as normal, Susanna had inched her way out of me and with every contraction I, too, felt myself inching towards a strange place. A borderland, where the newness of life seems awfully close to death, and where a bellow of pain, in one slippery second, can turn into a gasp of relief accompanied by a baby’s first cry.

In the same way that panting through childbirth made me feel privy to a different reality, so did living in Bolivia. Of course, during the years we lived there I wasn’t in a constant state of enlightenment, but after we returned to Canada, I’d get flashes of perspective when I remembered where we’d been. This was especially helpful as a substitute teacher facing high schoolers I didn’t know—half of whom were bigger than me, most were apathetic, and a few were angry and offensive. To keep from being intimidated by the latter, I’d think of Bolivia. Of clambering onto a truckload of corn and sliding around the muddy curves of the Inca Wasi, where graves dot the side of the road instead of guardrails. I’d think of my friend, Lucia, who told me she cried at night when she was worried about what she’d feed her family the next morning.

And so, when some fifteen-year-old would tell me to “F— off”, I’d reflect (in a 3-second-sweaty-armpit way) that if I could learn a tonal language, survive parasites and wash my clothes in a river, I didn’t have to be scared of an adolescent tantrum. Secondly, I reminded myself of the world outside the classroom; even though the kid in front of me was making a fuss, millions of other people were foraging for food and fighting for their survival at the very same moment.

Thinking about where I’d been at times like these, was like tapping into a confidential file. Not that my personal experiences made me better than everyone else, but they reminded me more is happening on our planet than the daily circumstances in front of me. The secret feeling I had after having a baby, or returning from an indigenous community in South America, came from getting a peek at the edge of life and my own mortality. These experiences illuminate the tight-rope we’re all walking on, when most of the time we barrel forward distractedly, not even aware we’re dancing on a 2-inch thick cable.

It happened again when Stan called me, while I was on the road, to tell me about Lucy. Before he even started, I knew something was wrong by his voice. It was soft, sad and sorry at the same time.

“They think she’s got cancer,” he told me, and then said it again when I responded in disbelief.

How could I believe my eighth-month-old niece has cancer, when a few weeks before she was standing in my lap, pumping her legs and grinning with one slobbery fist in her mouth? (The details of this position may not be completely accurate since my sweet, baby-snatching daughter, Susanna, whisked her away every time I’d get her.) How could I imagine what Philip and Anne, Stan’s brother and his wife, were going through when we’d just spent days lazing around a pool together, playing tennis, and challenging each other to foot races? (Philip is the fastest sprinter of the four of us, by the way.)

Over the next several hours, on my drive home, I had that same secret feeling. Only this time it was awful, and instead of making me braver or wiser, it left a taste in my mouth of something gone desperately wrong. When I stopped for food, I numbly paid for my meal while customers around me laughed at dumb jokes and poured cream into their coffees, not knowing how the world had changed. Not knowing that nothing will ever be the same—no matter what happens–for Lucy, Philip, Anne, and the rest of us who care, again.

As Lucy undergoes chemotherapy and her little, but fierce, body fights to survive, I am praying every day. In fact, I know people that don’t even pray, who are praying. We are praying she won’t suffer the side effects of the treatment, that she can still breastfeed, that she sleeps peacefully, that she doesn’t remember any of this when it’s over, that Philip and Anne don’t lose their minds–or their patience and love for each other, that Lucy’s big brother is protected from the pain around him, and that Lucy lives.

But I’m also praying for something else. I’m praying that if there are others like me who are pushed just a little closer to the edge, out of the blinding normalcy of work and every-day routines, because of Lucy they find something else besides a dark chasm. And that when they cry for Help, whether cynical, apathetic, or angry, swinging their arms wildly to maintain balance on the wire, Jesus meets them right where they are.

If you are able, please pray for Lucy. If you aren’t up for prayer, start a conversation with someone about the moments you’ve experienced “the edge” in your life and how it affected you. Either way, I wish you peace, wisdom and strength for the length of tight-rope you’re walking today,


Aunty Anne finally gets a chance to hold her own baby!

Lucy and her beautiful mama, Anne (photo taken in April)

For Corinna: salt, soup, and more

“Where did you get that bowl, mom?” She asks me, while staring at a crude piece of pottery sitting on our book shelf. “Can you tell me the story?”

Lately, the girls have been asking us the story behind the stuff in our home. Fortunately we live in the type of house where almost everything has a story: it’s either been handmade, thrifted, or given to us.

I jump off the couch, grab our Bolivia photo album and start flipping through the pictures, but Susanna stops me before I get very far.

“Wait,” she says, placing her hand firmly on the plastic pages. “I didn’t know Daddy knew how to cook!” She is staring at a picture of her Dad kneading bread.

“He doesn’t cook much now, does he? He used to cook a lot.” I say it kind of wistfully, but not because I’m disgruntled; I’m quite happy with our roles around the home. Rather, I’m remembering how he wooed me with some tomato, basil, and jalapeño soup…

After looking at the pictures I decide I will make the soup for old time’s sake.

Frozen tomatoes, ready to be peeled (with the help of hot water).

Frozen tomatoes, ready to be peeled (with the help of hot water) for soup.


Jalapeño and Sweet Basil. I don’t add very much jalapeño… (maybe 1/3 of the pepper), hoping the girls will eat it.


Sauté garlic, jalapeños and onions in oil. Add tomatoes and basil and simmer. It will be pretty mushy by this point. Cut up the chunks with 2 knives or blend in food processor. Add cream, al gusto, and thicken with flour or cornstarch. Add anything else you think it needs …


tomatoe, basil and jalapeño soup

I learned many things living in Bolivia; one was how to make soup. I remember watching women dice up shriveled carrots, peel potatoes (leaving only wisps of curled skin), toast rice, gather parsley a few feet away from their fire, and produce bowls of soup–all without consulting a recipe book. I realized then that cooking is not so much plodding through directions as working magic with whatever ingredients you have on hand.


chopped, dried apricots

Sometimes, ok–very rarely, the magic awes the audience. Most of the time though, I feel like I have to persuade the crowd to give me a chance. Like last week; I made roast chicken with apricots, almonds, ginger and cream, set it on the table with a flourish… and my dinner companions eyed it skeptically.

“It’s called Tuscan Chicken” I say, sure that someone, somewhere in Tuscany, has eaten a roasted bird with nuts and fruit before.DSCN5203_

I end up having Tuscan Chicken for lunch the next day, the day after that, and the day after that.

Last week I picked up An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace on a whim. I was drawn by it’s cover, and although I’m not particularly interested in food writing, I brought it home anyway.

I find recipe books tiresome, even ones with beautiful, mouth-watering photographs. Tamar Adler’s book is not a recipe book. It is a book with recipes embedded in essays on grace, living well, and “snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.” If you are mildly interested in eating or good writing, I highly recommend it. It is the kind of book that makes you want to make mayonnaise from scratch at eleven o’clock at night, and stock your cupboards with anchovies.

Today, it made me start on a soup of roasted cauliflower. The recipe, of course, is non-existent.


Adler recommends roasting vegetables with everything they’ve got: core, leaves and all!


She also recommends things like a “long pour of olive oil” and “more salt than you think”. I’ve followed through on these vegetables.

…But, enough of soup and salt, let’s get back to the pottery on my bookshelf. I am trying to find a picture of Sabina, the Guaraní lady who made it for me, to show Susanna. When we study the photo together I’m amazed that something in my 1950’s bungalow has come from the other end of the earth.

Watch this 4 min. video clip and you’ll see what I mean. We found it the other day when Stan was doing some research on animal traction. Stan traveled to the Guaraní community (and met some of the men) featured here; it also shows some of what our life was like.  

Have a tasty weekend,


Bolivia and the bathroom deal

Yesterday, while visiting on the bleachers with another mom during my daughters’ gymnastics class, my friend asked me how I met my American husband.  I told her both Stan and I were working in Bolivia when we met and then we ended up staying there together for a number of years.

“Oh,” she responded politely, “Is it nice there?”

Is it nice there?  I wondered how to reply to her question, while staring at the blur of sparkly body suits and pony tails in front of us.

“Very. Nice.”

End of conversation.

Our housemate, Jaun, loved to plant flowers as much as we loved to plant veggies, so it worked out just about right.

Our housemate, Jaun, loved to plant flowers as much as we loved to plant veggies, so it worked out just about right.

I could have kept talking though, if I thought she were really interested.  In fact, Bolivia has been on my mind a lot lately, even though we wiped the last of her red dirt off our sandals more than eight years ago.  I can always count on my washing machine to remind me of our time spent there.  At least once or twice a week while I’m shutting the door of our beautiful front-loader on a pile of dirty clothes, I will remember this:

My in-laws came for a visit and helped us out with just about everything.

My in-laws came for a visit and helped us out with just about everything.


Stan and Juan working under the drying clothes.

But besides my regular washing machine reminder, I’ve been thinking about our bathroom.  Specifically, whether I’ve kept my end of the bargain I made with myself years ago while sweeping the ashes out of our latrine.

When we first moved to Taperillas, we lived in a small storage room in the community store.  During our stay there, we went to the bathroom where everybody else did; in the bush.  Unfortunately I was also coping with severe and chronic diarrhea (aggravated by parasites and undiagnosed celiac disease) so I got familiar with every bush and scrubby plant within 200 meters of our living quarters.  Then, after five months, we finally moved into a house of our own.  And… (insert uplifting orchestra music here) it had an outhouse.

I do not believe anyone has warmer feelings for outhouses than I did then, and continue to nurture deep within me.  It wasn’t just any old outhouse either; it was a dry latrine—the Cadillac of outhouses.  Not only did it provide an enclosed place for us to relieve ourselves, it composted the solid waste (aka poop) so we could use it later for fertilizer.  Which we did.

Constructing the latrine with rammed earth blocks

Constructing the latrine with rammed earth blocks

The  happy family with their new latrine (Jaun, Stan, and Tricia)

The happy family with their new latrine (Jaun, Stan, and Tricia)

An inside view.  One year for my birthday, Stan made me a custom seat.  I had so much diarrhea that I was often too weak to squat.

An inside view. One year for my birthday, Stan made me a custom seat. I had so much diarrhea that I was often too weak to squat.
the inside of our latrine door--made of flattened lard tins

the inside of our latrine door–made of flattened lard tins

One day, soon after the latrine was constructed, I was merrily sweeping around the squatter hole and I began to think about cleaning the bathroom of my university apartment. I thought about the shiny bowl, the 70’s tile floors, the sink (conveniently located in the the same room as the toilet, with a cold and hot water tap to boot!) and made a resolution.  I decided that if I ever had the chance to own or rent a home with a bathroom as nice as that one, again, I would keep it immaculately clean… ALL THE TIME.  I imagined myself wiping the floors daily, and even the underside of the toilet’s holding tank, for the pure joy of it!  I would never let it get dusty, hairy or grimy, I thought as I filled the wood ash box that sat next to the hole.  My floors and fixtures will be clean enough to eat off!

Well, the unthinkable happened.  Eleven years later, I walk into our bathroom, and it’s dusty, hairy and grimy.  And believe me, if one of our girls happens to be eating a cookie and it falls on the bathroom floor, there is no way that cookie is going into her mouth.

One of the reasons this little deal has surfaced again is because I just recently made another kind of pact with myself.  This time it encompasses a lot more than bathrooms.  It has to do with making a home, and a life, for my family.

While I was teaching grade six this past fall, I learned a lot.  I learned what it is like to come home, after a long day, to a cold house with two hungry children and nothing on the stove.  I learned that all the years I was at home with my children, feeling like I was accomplishing nothing, I was, in fact, keeping our little house afloat.  And keeping a house afloat in the great big sea of family needs takes a lot of effort.  Of course, while I was teaching, I had very little to give to this effort and slowly, slowly our little boat started to lose buoyancy.  While it was sinking I told myself that after Christmas I would the throw myself into holistic home-making…  and more.

With seven hours a day of “free time”, I figured I would set a few goals.  Here’s a sampling of them in no particular order: simplify, organize, and keep our house in shape; host different people in our home every week; take meals to people; look into fostering children; brew our own probiotic beverages; write a book; become a certified doula; get a master’s degree; be emotionally present to my children and husband; help organize a community garden; create a no-fail gluten-free sourdough bread recipe; design and sew my family’s wardrobe; make homemade gifts for all my nieces, nephews and every birthday my daughters get invited to; substitute teach; learn vibrato on the violin…

At the end of everyday, I evaluate what I did with my time and wonder what happened.  Our office is still chaotic; my emotional rope is one hundred times longer, now that I’m at home, but I still come to the end of it at least once every day; I write a paragraph in the time I thought I would be able to hammer out a chapter; and guess what… yep, you got it, the bathroom needs a deep cleaning.  I am starting to get the feeling that my intentions to invest in my home, family and dreams, may end up like the failed bathroom deal.

By the way, if you are expecting a high note at the end of this mini-essay, you will be sorely disappointed.  There will be nothing of the sort.  Rather, I intend to end on a low note, and I do mean LOW.  As far as I can see, the best way through all of this is to lower my expectations.  Frankly, I think people underestimate the value of mediocrity.  Especially when it comes to how it affects our personal sanity.  If this sounds lazy or uninspired to you, consider the lists you make; they are probably different than mine, but I’m guessing your success rate isn’t.  Of course, I truly hope it’s better (as long as I don’t know you very well and end up comparing myself to you), but if it’s not, take heart and just set that bar one notch down.  Or two or three.

With resolutions fading fast almost three weeks after New Years, perhaps the wisest way to sign off is:

Hoping for more; happy with less,


PS.  I was sort of kidding about the ending-on-the-low-note thing.  I really want to fit in a picture of our brand new dishwasher in this post, and it’s definitely not depressing.  I remember thinking about dishwashers when I lived in Taperillas, and wondering how I could explain them… after you eat your meal you take you dish and put it in this big box and then the box cleans it!  It seemed so fabulous and ridiculous all at once.  The first few times we loaded the dishwasher last week, then closed the door and listened for it’s magical hum, we felt pretty much just like that.

Honestly, isn't it amazing?

Honestly, isn’t it amazing?

Thanks moms and dads and grandparents for your Christmas contribution towards this!

Thanks moms and dads and grandparents for your Christmas contribution toward this!

Can you stare at a poster for twenty minutes?

It was probably one day in 2002 or 2003.  I remember sitting outside of the community store (the only “store” for miles) in Taperillas, Bolivia one day.  There were a few of us and we were waiting for something, although I can’t recall exactly what we were waiting for.  Waiting is such a part of life in Bolivia that the act itself is not very memorable.  We had all been sitting for quite some time on the rough wooden benches when someone gestured towards the Coca Cola poster that was clinging to the dusty adobe wall.

“Que bonito, no?” Pascual said with admiration.  All of us looked up at the advertisement that had been hanging there for months, maybe even years.  Others murmured their appreciation for it.  I found I was beginning to study it too, and added my opinion to the others.

“Such bright colours” I said.  After discussing the poster for at least another twenty minutes I was struck by what was happening.  No one was irritated that whoever or whatever we were waiting for hadn’t shown up yet.  In fact, looking at a single poster was providing more than enough entertainment.

Moments like these, so slow and full of patience, are rare.

This picture was not taken the day I just described, but we are sitting at the store (the dark closet on the right) and that is Don Pascual beside me.

I think of this memory often when I am at the doctor’s office and he is 45 min behind schedule, when I am at a show and it starts later than previously announced, or other times when I am feeling hurried and agitated.

Yesterday I thought of it when I was reading The Belonging Place by Jean Little to my girls.  All of us were enjoying the book so much we hardly breathed through one sentence to the next.  I knew I should stop after a chapter or two, but all of us wanted to press on and soon the book was finished much too early.  There are other books like these, ones we love so much we race through them, all the time wanting to go slowly-if only to savour them a little more.  Kind of like Pascual and the Coca-Cola poster.

Here is a handful of titles that two girls, a grown man, and a mama have enjoyed together this past year:

“An inspiring story of self discovery. In Jean Little’s first historical novel, Elspet Mary, a young Scottish orphan, embarks on the journey of a lifetime when she emigrates with relatives to Canada in the 1840s. Her struggle to make a place for herself, not only in her adoptive family but in her new home as well, is powerful and poignant, told as only Jean Little can tell…more”

via The Belonging Place by Jean Little – Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists.

When the heroine’s granny urges her to write down her story she says, “Make a good story of it… dinna leave out bits because somebody else might not like what you say or remember it differently.  You need lots of strong colours to make a good quilt, not just pretty pinks and whites.”

“Everyone loves Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle lives in an upside-down house and smells like cookies. She was even married to a pirate once. Most of all, she knows everything about children. She can cure them of any ailment. Patsy hates baths. Hubert never puts anything away. Allen eats v-e-r-y slowly. Mrs Piggle-Wiggle has a treatment for all of them.”

via Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald – Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists.


Grandma’s Attic by Arleta Richardson

Frindle by Andrew Clements

Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder