Adapt, Capitalize, and Debrief


I’m not very good at waiting around for things to happen; like babies, for example. On Wednesday, I call a small resort and ask if they have any cabins available for the upcoming weekend. I also ask if they have cell service, just in case I go into labour (they don’t), but I figure I could make the hour-and-a-half trip back to to the hospital in good time. (I bring along a clean sheet for a roadside delivery just in case.) On Friday morning we roll out the driveway, our canoe hunkered over our Mazda, ready to explore a new lake and a new way of vacationing by ourselves. Never before has our family chosen to stay in the “front-country” when striking out on our own. Over the years we’ve canoed and backpacked into many different wilderness campsites, but considering the circumstances, going into the back-country isn’t an option this time. And it turns out that hot water, cupboards stocked with dishes, and ready-made beds covered with quilts, aren’t such a bad idea after all.


Happy to burrow my belly into the sand!

At the beach, while warming up after a swim, Susanna grabs an index card and a pencil and starts writing. After awhile she shares her work–a detailed outline of the stages of pregnancy, each with a summary of what a new mom should expect. My favourite line, in Stage 6, reads: You may notice that it will try to push itself out during labor. The “you may notice” bit sounds reassuring, like it’ll be so low-key I’ll have remind myself of what’s going on.

Inspired by her outline, I borrow her idea of “stages” and apply it to our family get-away. Like pregnancy, and most holidays, it seems to follow a pattern…

Stage 1: Adapt

This is the scratchiest part of the vacation–even if you’re at a five-star all-inclusive. Changing speeds and getting used to a new environment, especially if it’s in the woods and literally scratchy, takes a bit of time. During this phase expectations re-align with reality. Kind of like what happens when I see our cottage for the first time, nestled in a stand of mosquito-infested spruce and dressed with cobwebs. I guess I was expecting a little more charm, and a little less of the “made for a group of fishing buddies” feel. Susanna and Belén don’t seem to notice and head inside. They get busy adapting, collecting bouquets of reeds and grass for every room and deciding who will sleep where.

Later, when we launch our boat and I tentatively brush the surface of the water with my paddle, as if I’m painting rather than canoeing, Stan phrases his question carefully.

“So… I guess this is as fast as we’re going to go?”

“Yes,” I reply, even though the trout are at the other end of the lake, even though it’s a beautiful night, and even though we’ve made this canoe go much, much faster. “Yes, this is definitely as fast as we’re going to go.”

We don’t make it to the narrows that evening, where the lake trout stay safe from our hooks. And the rosemary sprigs from our garden, plucked with high hopes, never see the frying pan. Instead, I hand both girls a paddle and they take over my job from their post in the middle. They squabble, shout orders, and then congratulate each other when our vessel picks up speed and stays, relatively, on course. It would’ve been nice to reach the deep waters ahead, but we realize we need to stay within sight of our cabin, at least when I’m in the bow, and I can’t help but think it’s okay for the kids too. It’s good for children to feel the force of water against wood. To understand what happens when the paddle feathers the water away, or churns it towards the boat. To feel the thrill of managing natural elements, rather than a tiny arrow on a screen, or even the pages of a book.


Belén, Susanna, and Stan, adapting to the compromised paddler in the bow.

Stage 2: Capitalize

On Saturday morning Belén and Stan slip away while Susanna and I are still in bed. They try again for lake trout–and reach the point we were heading for the night before–but get caught in a storm before they have any luck. Susanna and I strain to catch sight of a canoe heading for home but can’t see through the white sheet of rain quickly advancing. Feeling helpless, we start on a batch of these fluffy buttermilk pancakes (my new favourite recipe) and soon the soggy father-daughter team are dripping at the door. Alive. They didn’t even capsize or get struck by lightning and it seems silly I was so worried.

The wind howls and the clouds weep steadily for hours. It’s the kind of day that makes a nap after breakfast seem perfectly reasonable, especially after a hard paddle. Reading aloud, playing scrabble, and sketching are also on the agenda. I am thankful for the 625 square foot cabin and the blanket of slow that settles around us. There is no laundry to do, no computer to check, no work to be done, no garden to weed, and the supper is already prepped. We are steeped in rest and each other.


When the rain stops we build a fire despite gale-force winds and study the trees around us, hoping they won’t fall victim to the wind and we, in turn, to them. Fortunately we are braver than the mosquitoes and enjoy some insect-free supper and s’mores, deciding a little breeze is better than a blood-hungry, buzzing plague.


Yes, this is what capitalizing looks like.

Stage 3: Debrief

I love stage three, when the trip happens all over again; only this time, bathed in the nostalgic light of retrospect. We go out for dinner the day we come home (a tradition after back-country trips) and indulge in beverages and a meal, plus dessert. Like we need to reward ourselves for going on vacation or something. Between ordering and eating we discuss our favourite parts and how great everything turned out. The sun, the rain, the wind, the food, the cabin. Even mishaps, like the sharp pencil that lodged itself deep into buttock flesh when a certain family member sat on it, producing tears and flaring tempers, don’t seem as menacing in a restaurant booth.

We discuss our plans for next summer and agree on a few points. It’ll be a backpacking trip in a place without mosquitoes. Death Valley? Well, it fits the criteria. A snowy glacial peak? No mosquitoes there. Wherever we go, we’ll have to adapt–especially with a one-year-old on our backs, hopefully capitalize, and most certainly debrief.

Is this what your vacations look like, too?




Retained heat cooking; a magical way to prepare beans

One day last winter the girls and I made a “magic box”.  I had been doing some research on basket cooking, or retained heat cooking—a method that saves fuel and firewood encouraged in many countries around the world–and wanted to give it a try at home.  I explained to Belén and Susanna that we would be decorating a special box that would do a trick; it would cook our rice, soften our lentils and even tenderize kidney beans!  The first time we did it I made a big deal out of bringing the food to a boil, quickly wrapping it in a towel, placing it in the magic box, covering it with blankets, and closing the lid.  When we opened the box 5 or 6 hours later, with much pomp and circumstance, our food was cooked to perfection.

These days, I continue to use the magic box idea but we have lost the actual box and the pomp and circumstance looks more like this:


the beginning of the process

After a weekend away our suitcase quietly explodes on our kitchen floor.  This usually goes on for days, but with the wonder of retained-heat cooking I can take advantage of all those clothes laying around.  First I soak my Arikara beans, then I rinse them and bring them to a boil, in plenty of water, on my stove top.  Next I wrap the pot in a clean kitchen towel, set it carefully in the box and throw whatever insulation I can find on top of it.  Now I get to feel good about not cleaning up our clothes, and the fact that I am only using about  10% of the energy I would normally consume if I were going to let them cook on my stove!


Rice doesn’t need to sit as long as beans do. I let legumes sit in the box for at least 5 hours.

Everytime I do this I still get excited about the first peek… will my food be cooked?



Yes, yes it will!

Check out this site for more info if this kind of thing turns your crank.

Of course, this is not new technology.  Different people groups have been applying this principle for years (burying food underground or covering it with hay to cook).  Posters and flyers describing this way of cooking were distributed around England during the war years to promote energy savings, and NGOs still encourage this practice in areas of the world where firewood and other resources are scarce.

While we personally can afford to cook with our stove as much as we want, I regularly cook this way because it’s so simple.  And simplicity is elegance, even when it comes to beans!

Have a great Monday,


Good Words: Dimming of the Day

I was first introduced to Richard Thompson’s music in a dingy cabin that smelled of fish and smoke, on the shores of Great Slave Lake, N.W.T.  It was the summer of 1997 and Thompson, a British singer/songwriter, had been recording music for over 25 years by that point, but I had never heard of him.

Here is a ballad with good harmonies he wrote and sang with his wife, from the album Pour Down Like Silver (1975).

This old house is falling down around my ears
I’m drowning in a river of my tears
When all my will is gone you hold me sway
I need you at the dimming of the day

You pull me like the moon pulls on the tide
You know just where I keep my better side…

Come the night you’re only what I want
Come the night you could be my confident…

I need you at the dimming of the day
I need you at the dimming of the day

I skipped some parts in the song, but those are the lines I like best.  (I’ve been thinking of that last phrase all week, especially as we move towards night in our home.)

You can hear it here.  I recommend you listen to it when you are not rushed.  It is slow… slow…  slow–and beautiful; something that goes with candles and a glass of wine or a cup of tea.

He also sings it with Bonie Raitt, and I like their version just as well.  It’s a little more throaty.  You can watch, and listen to them here.

Happy Friday!  Happy weekend!  Now go hum the song to your special someone…

*My own end of the week tradition: words in song or story that move me in some way.  I might type my very favourite parts in bold text, and I’ll always try to post a link, or two, so you can get more if you want it. Enjoy!

Good Words: Looking Closer

Yesterday, 2:15 pm:

I’m standing in front of thirty sixth graders, pacing the floor with a novel in my hands, and I feel a lump starting to form in my throat.  The words keep jumping off the page and out of my mouth but I’m afraid I might cry.  I can’t cry, I can’t cry, I can’t cry, I chant inwardly…


Honestly, before I had children I could read through anything like I would a recipe book.  Now, if I detect even a whiff of emotion, my body has no choice.  The tear ducts, the throat; they all go on auto-pilot cry mode.  It’s rather inconvenient in front of a full class.  These words by Cynthia Lord in Rules, are not the ones that made me teary, but I did interrupt myself when I came across them.  I stopped, put the book down, and wrote the first line on the whiteboard….and then kept on reading.

Looking closer can make something beautiful…Sometimes I can change how I feel about something by drawing it.  Drawing makes me find the curves, the shadows…and the beautiful parts.  I solved my hating snakes by drawing their scales, tiny and silvery, overlapping and overlapping, until all I saw was how perfect they were.”

I’ve only read the first two chapters, but I can tell you that thirty 11 year-olds were captivated by it for at least 1 hour yesterday.

*My own end of the week tradition: words in song or story that move me in some way.  I might type my very favourite parts in bold text, and I’ll always try to post a link below the quote so you can get more if you want it. Enjoy!

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