Let’s talk about politics: Our experience with government done right

Note: I shared this on my social media the other day, and thought I’d share it on the ol’ blog as well.

Friends: I want to talk for a few minutes about politics. But not in a way I’ve heard much. I want to talk about government done right. I want to share a bit of my personal experience with the province of Ontario.

Our province has its problems, of course. Our country has its problems. I don’t want to diminish the ways our government has harmed and continues to harm certain marginalized communities. But I also want to talk about how the province of Ontario has cared for this little boy from day one.

Felix was born without a functioning immune system and with an atypical brain. Of course this was not his fault. But it means he was born incredibly vulnerable in every way possible. He was born with a body vulnerable to illness and infection, and as a disabled person, also to abuse and neglect. He was born with complex needs, and Ben and I absolutely could not have supported him through his life all on our own. Not in ten lifetimes could we have acquired all the necessary resources to care for all of his unique support needs. Thankfully, the systems in place in our province have managed to support our entire family through his first five years.

First there were the six months in the hospital, and the experimental medical treatment that gave him a functioning immune system, which came at zero cost to our family, thanks to Ontario’s health insurance plan (OHIP). We have continued to have his health monitored and supported by excellent local doctors all these years later. I have never stopped feeling awed gratitude about that.

But it didn’t stop there. When his intellectual and developmental disabilities became evident, we were immediately granted access to all the therapies he needed. When we discovered he had hearing loss, the system made it possible for us to get him hearing aids and audiology support, again at no personal cost to us. When we realized he was going to have long-term mobility issues, the system made sure he had orthotics and a wheelchair/stroller to get around. Even though he can’t walk, he can go anywhere that anyone else can go — parks, zoos, stores, forests, the beach.

We’ve seen dozens of specialists in multiple fields to make sure he has access to all the supports he needs, all paid for by the system. All his medications have been covered. And recently, we started to receive funding to employ a respite worker and housecleaner to support me as a mother, who has struggled with the added labour of caring for a medically-complex, multiply-disabled child with disordered sleep and eating.

Now he’s school-aged. The doctors and therapists taking care of him made sure he got into the necessary programs so that he got into the right classroom, where he would continue to get the support he needs. He gets picked up by an accessible bus, even though for the first few days this year he was the only kid on the bus. He’s in a wonderful classroom with caring adults who have tailor-made a curriculum just for him. He’s surrounded by other kids who love and accept him, because they’re loved and accepted, too.

I know that governments have to power to commit incredible atrocities. But they also have the power to do tremendous good. I have seen it myself.

I realize that government systems doing the right thing is not as sexy or exciting to hear about as, say, wealthy individuals volunteering to do grand acts of kindness. But I believe a strong democratic government can do infinitely more good than any individuals can, no matter their character. Vulnerable people like Felix NEED strong systems in place to protect and support them. They can’t rely on the power, wealth, or goodwill of their parents or do-gooders alone.

I used to not care that much about politics because I didn’t see what it had to do with me. I figured I could take care of myself, and others should be able to, too. But I have learned in the last five years that not everyone can take care of themselves or their own children, and no one can take care of themselves all the time, and that’s okay. Collectively, we can and should take care of each other.

We still have a long way to go in Ontario. We need to keep fighting until every vulnerable person has access to the level of care that my boy has had, regardless of age, ability, race, or sexuality. (And I hope to see humane policies spread to other countries as well. Looking at you, USA). But I have seen what we’re capable of as a community. I know what’s possible.

Learning Resources We’re Loving Right Now: Math, Shakespeare, Mythology and More for an 8-year-old

It’s been a fun unschooling year for us so far, and I thought I’d do a round-up of some of our favourite resources of the last season.

DragonBox Math Apps

It’s no secret that I hate math. I had some terrible early experiences with math in school, and I now believe that the way schools teach it is completely wrong and awful. I have been very cautious with how I’ve approached math with my own kid — playfully, and with no expectations.

One of my favourite resources so far have been the DragonBox games. They’re available for purchase for $5-8 each. We’ve bought them and played them on our Kindle Fire.

I find them very intuitive and they just make math come alive. Each game starts off incredibly simple, and slowly gets more challenging and complex. Interestingly, they are designed without verbal prompts — it’s all just the language of math, with some cute character symbols thrown in. Before you know it, your child is playing with advanced math concepts without even knowing it (including algebra)!

As their website explains: “The DragonBox Method . . . uses motivation-based learning techniques to give children a deeper understanding of how and why things work.”

Lydia tends to turn her nose up at any games that smell remotely educational, but she asks to play these games and can spend hours at a time at them, and I find myself magnetically drawn to them when she plays.

So far we’ve tried Numbers, Big Numbers, and Algebra5. Next up: Magnus Kingdom of Chess!

Narwhal and Jelly Books

I want to back up by saying that I am becoming increasingly convinced that graphic novels are the best tool for learning how to read. Even better than traditional picture books, good graphic novels are more distilled: they don’t waste space on distracting “he said/she said;” they break up text into manageable voice bubbles; and they give more visual clues about what the words say, granting the young reader more independence. (I don’t have to sit next to her and verify that she’s sounding out the words correctly; she can look at the graphics to self-correct.)

But I’ve had a bit of a hard time finding super-simple beginner books in this format that are interesting enough to keep my brand-new reader interested. She started with Elephant and Piggie, which are PERFECT, but I was looking for the next step. Enter Narwhal and Jelly.

The graphics are cute and the stories are short and silly. It doesn’t feel like these books are trying to teach you how to read, because they’re not. They’re just fun. Lydia has been delighted every time I’ve taken out a new book from the library, and immediately sat down to read them through on the spot.

(Do you have any suggestions for the next step? Graphic novel-ish books that are just a touch more challenging?)

Manga Shakespeare series

On the subject of graphic novels: we found some really exciting ones!

For some background: I enrolled Lydia in a once-a-week Charlotte Mason enrichment class, where she was introduced to Shakespeare via Twelfth Night. I could tell she was getting really into it, so I began to seek out materials to build on that interest.

In my search for accessible Shakespeare retellings, I came across the Manga Shakespeare series. Lydia loves the aesthetic of manga/anime, so I gave Twelfth Night a try. It has the full/original Shakespearean text, adapted to the graphic novel format.

Friends: she LOVED it. She spent hours and hours looking at the pictures and reading as much of the text as she could. (Remember: she’s eight, and currently at Narwhal-and-Jelly reading level.)

The wonder of graphic novels is that even if you don’t completely understand the text, the images help you get the gist of the story. I am now convinced that if you can’t watch actual performances of Shakespeare’s plays–which is obviously the ideal introduction to the Bard–the second best way to experience them is in the form of a graphic novel.

So I searched out Shakespeare’s other comedies in the series, and found A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and then Much Ado About Nothing. Same result: she begged me to read them aloud to her, and then spent hours upon hours going over them herself, over and over again. She even had her Barbies act out the plays!

(We also watched the 1993 Kenneth Brannah movie adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing and she adored it, and has been asking to watch it again. Guys, this is a word-for-word adaptation of the original play. WHAT.)

Thanks to this series my eight-year-old can now quote her favourite lines of Shakespeare and I am HERE for it.

Olympians graphic novels

I forget how or why I introduced Greek mythology, but Lydia was enthralled with it from the start. She really liked the illustrated D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, and I would read the stories to her before bed.

But then I happened to come upon the Olympians graphic novel series by George O’Connor and she was ENAMOURED.

The illustrations are captivating and full of detail, with a classic superhero/comic book aesthetic, and the text is snappy and smart. They’re bursting with energy.

Just like with the Shakespeare books, she proceeded to spend hours inside these books. I took them out of the library one by one, starting with the most appealing goddesses (Athena, Aphrodite and Artemis) and then moving on to the gods, and she ate up every single one (even notoriously boring Hephaistos!) (My personal favourite was Hermes, who is hilarious and charismatic).

(Be warned that these books were created for an older audience. There is partial nudity, graphic violence, and lots of vague references to sex that went over her head. But, I mean, that’s Greek mythology for you.)

Crash Course World Mythology

While on her mythology kick, we tried a few relevant Crash Course videos on Youtube. She loved them so much we went through the whole World Mythology series, and she’s been rewatching her favourites.

I find Mike a charming and hilarious* host, and Lydia loves the Thought Bubble animations. I love that she’s being introduced to a wide array of mythologies, from Indigenous to Hindu to Norse.

*I am a huge dork and was the kind of student who always genuinely laughed at the teacher’s jokes, if that helps you discern whether you’ll like them

The Toys That Made Us

Netflix has a documentary series on the most explosively popular toys from the 70’s-90’s called The Toys That Made Us, and we’re obsessed.

My favourites so far have been on Barbie, The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, LEGO, and Transformers.

I go back and forth between awe of these creators’ genius, and disgust at the blatant commodification and commercialization of childhood. The series does not shy away from the baldly capitalist motivations of the toy corporations, and isn’t interested in nostalgia. It’s super fascinating. And for some reason Lydia loves it, too. (Yay history!)

(Again, it’s made for adult viewers, and can occasionally have some crude language. Sorry, that’s how we roll around here. My kid just isn’t generally as interested in media geared specifically to children, which can often be patronizing; and I’m comfortable with her being exposed to some more mature content, as long as I’m nearby to discuss it.)

That’s it for now! Have any suggestions for similar materials we might love?

How to Crochet Your Own Weighted Blanket

A lot of people are talking about weighted blankets these days. They are said to ease anxiety, help you self-soothe and help you sleep better. And what’s more appealing than snuggling under a big, heavy blanket to help ease your worries? It provides deep pressure all over your body, mimicking a hug.

There seems to be some scientific evidence to support these claims of improved sleep and relaxation. And there’s definitely a lot of anecdotal evidence from people who say that weighted blankets changed their lives. Some claim that these blankets can be particularly beneficial for people with autism, sensory processing disorder, or anxiety.

And even if the science isn’t 100% there yet, well, using a weighted blanket (in addition to whatever you healthcare provider recommends) can’t hurt, right? It’s a low-risk, relatively low-cost, fairly accessible tool that has potential to help anyone struggling with negative feelings or sleeplessness.

If you struggle with any of the above issues (anxiety, sensory issues, troubled sleep), a weighted blanket is worth a shot, right?

My Story: The Hunt for the Perfect Weighted Blanket

When my autistic son was really struggling with sleep, I was anxious to try anything that might help. Naturally, I became interested in trying a weighted blanket. I did some preliminary research into different products, but ran into various problems:

  1. The options were all quite expensive. A child-sized blanket was typically at least $120 USD. That felt like a lot of money to spend on something that might not do anything. What if he didn’t respond to it?
  2. There weren’t any options available locally – they were all online. Which meant I couldn’t touch and feel the blankets myself before purchasing. I didn’t feel comfortable laying down money for something so intrinsically tactile when I had never been able to physically interact with it.
  3. Most of the options were made from synthetic materials. They used synthetic fabrics like acrylic and polyester, and were weighted with plastic beads. This sounded both uncomfortable (I hate to sleep on and under non-breathable fabrics!) and not ideal from an environmental standpoint.
  4. Most of the options were kind of ugly. Again, if I was going to put down that much money for something, I didn’t want it to be an eyesore. Most had childish patterns and/or looked like therapy tools, not bedding.

Ideally, I was looking for a relatively inexpensive product, that was made from natural, breathable materials, that was available locally, and that looked nice, too.

I came across one company that made a product which met almost all my desires: Sheltered Co, a small business in California that made gorgeous hand-crocheted blankets from deadstock (leftover) fabric (mostly stretchy cotton jersey). They bought bolts of fabric, cut them into strips, and crocheted them into densely-woven blankets that weighed 13lbs or more.

The resulting blankets were environmentally-friendly, beautiful, and breathable. They weren’t local, though. And the biggest problem? They were expensive. I’m talking $335 USD plus shipping minimum for a child-sized blanket (+$100 for an adult-sized). Yikes! We’re a single-income family, we don’t have that kind of cash to spend on things that might not work!

The moment I first saw one of their blankets, I was blown away by their simple, elegant beauty. And the moment I saw the price, I thought, “I bet I could make that.”

If you can single-crochet a giant rectangle, you can make one of these blankets.

Making my First Blanket

My journey towards crocheting my own weighted blanket had its own problems. I didn’t have access to deadstock cotton jersey fabric like the folks at Sheltered Co, for starters; and I didn’t have a way to easily cut fabric into strips if I had. So I decided my first step would be to find pre-made cotton jersey yarn (often called “t-shirt yarn”).

I spent a lot of time hunting down the right kind of yarn. I knew I wouldn’t be able to find yarn as thick as what I’d seen in those photos, but I thought I could still get some good results with a super-bulky weight. But just as with the blankets themselves, I couldn’t find a local source, so I ended up having to purchase the yarn online without being able to touch and feel it. (At least in the case of yarn, the cost was much lower than a whole blanket, so it was less of a leap of faith.)

I ended up going with Hoooked Zpagetti t-shirt yarn. It’s made from recycled jersey fabric, so it’s environmentally friendly. It’s generally made from at least 90% cotton, so it’s natural and breathable. (Because it’s made from leftover fabric, the contents vary). I got it from Lovecrafts, but a number of sites sell it. I continued to run into problems with the yarn, but I won’t get into that here — I’ll just share my tips when I tell you how you can make your own blanket.T

My first blanket was . . . okay. I tried mixing colours and discovered that when using recycled yarn, sticking with one colour is better to get a more consistent result. I also misjudged the sizing a bit, and ended up with a narrower blanket than I wanted.

I also learned that there is no attractive way to tie t-shirt yarn end together or weave them in. So for my next blanket, I would have to bust out my sewing machine and actually sew all yarn ends together, which added a step.

But gosh, it felt good to wrap around my body. And it looked pretty good, too! Even if it didn’t help my son sleep, it would make an attractive throw blanket for the family room.

I made three more blankets (one for my daughter, one for a friend, and one for my sister) before I finally felt like I’d hit on a good formula.

Testimonials

Here’s what one friend said about the one I made for her:

I use it every single day! I find it really comforting, especially when my body is feeling uncomfortable. I even feel like my sleeping has improved since I started using it as my blanket at night. Even though it’s summer, it’s still cool enough to use at night, and in winter I just double it up with my usual blanket. Plus it’s cute!

And her roommate:

[My friend] has used it more than me, but honestly I love it whenever I do use it. I find it really soothing, and because I tend to be really restless when I’m anxious, the weight is comforting and reminds me to relax. It just helps me feel more secure? Kind of like I’ve been tucked in, haha. And if I’m sitting up to read or whatever, I can double it over and lay it over my legs, which are usually the most restless part of me. We are often arguing over who gets to use it! So yeah, it gets a lot of use out of us!

I personally took my daughter’s weighted blanket with me when I got a root canal, and I found the pressure of the blanket soothing during the stressful procedure.

The Blanket: Details

These guidelines are for a child-size blanket. It will be approximately 3×4 feet in size and weigh around 6 lbs. This is generally considered a good size and weight for a child (weighted blankets are recommended to be about 10% of the person’s body weight). For an adult, you’d have to make adjustments (buy an extra ball or two of yarn and add chains/rows).

This blanket has a very open weave. You can put your fingers right through the holes. Some users like this feature, and find comfort in lacing their fingers through the holes.

It does not provide significant warmth (which is a huge advantage in a warmer season or climate). If you want warmth, you can layer it with another blanket/comforter.

Cost: a ball of Zpagetti yarn is typically around $11 USD. Five balls (what I recommend) then comes out to about $55. However, look out for sales, and check different websites for better prices. I got mine on sale once and only paid about $41 for all the yarn I needed for a blanket. If you’re buying a jumbo crochet hook for the first time, they generally run you about $5 each.

Construction:
The whole thing is made with single crochets through the front loops only. Crocheting through the front loops creates an attractive texture and also makes the blanket stretchier. (Click here if you need a refresher.)

Ready to make your own?

DIY Weighted Blanket Instructions

Important Note on the Yarn:
One thing I learned the hard way is that because most (all?) t-shirt yarn is made from leftover jersey material, every skein of yarn is different. The makers cannot guarantee an exact weight/thickness for the yarn, and the stretchyness also varies. This means I can’t give you exact instructions on what size hook to use, how many chains to start with, or how many rows it will take. I can offer general guidelines, but you will have to do a bit of experimenting to get the exact size and drape you want.

Also, even if you buy the same colour from the same place, you might get varying shades. I was disappointed once by mismatched yarn, all ordered from the same site. For this reason, if at all possible, get this yarn from a brick-and-mortar store so you can see for yourself that it all matches. Or buy directly from the manufacturer site (which is easier/cheaper to do if you’re in Europe).

You want to use a much larger hook than what the yarn manufacturer recommends, because they are expecting you to be making something sturdy (like a rug or a cushion cover), not something that drapes and hugs. A blanket is an unconventional/unexpected use for this yarn.

As I mentioned above, you will run into knots in your skein where fabric yarn ends were tied together. These do not look nice in your blanket. The best way to deal with them is to untie them and sew them together yourself. I will give a bit more detail in my instructions below. However if this is not an option for you and you’re not that picky about the look of your blanket, you can ignore them and leave them in. It wont affect the durability or function of the blanket.

Materials:

  • 5 skeins of matching Hooked Zpagetti yarn (or similar extra-bulky t-shirt yarn)
  • 19mm or 25mm hook, depending on thickness of yarn and personal preference
  • measuring tape
  • sewing machine (optional)
  • thread to match yarn (optional)

Step 1: Make a test swatch.

I would recommend doing a couple of large test swatches to gauge what size hook you need to give you the look and drape you want.

(The bigger the hook, the drapey-er the blanket. As a general rule, I’d say err on the side of bigger/drapey-er. If it’s too stiff it will feel like you’re sleeping under a rug.)

To make your test swatch:
1. Chain 25 or so.
2. For the fist row, single-crochet into every stitch, working into the bottom or the top of the chain — whatever you prefer/are used to.
3. For the next few rows, single-crochet into the front loop only. Once you have about 25 rows, you can stop.

Spend some time with your test swatch to gauge if you like the look and feel of it. You might decide to start over again with a different hook size until it’s the way you like it.

Calculating Size:
When you’re happy with your swatch, count how many stitches your yarn and hook combo take to make one foot in width. You’ll want to triple that to get a blanket that’s roughly three feet wide. (Feel free to round up — better to get it a little big than too small.) In my experience, it takes roughly 50-65 stitches to make three feet.

Next, count how many rows it takes to get one foot in length. Quadruple that number to get a blanket that’s roughly four feet long. In my experience, it takes roughly 75 rows to make four feet.

Step Two: Start Your Blanket!

You’re just making a bigger version of your test swatch, using the numbers you came up with above for the full size.

I start with a chain of between 50-65 stitches.

Then I single crochet into every stitch through the front loops only.

Then you keep going until you have your desired length!

When you come to yarn knots/end in your ball (and you will), you can leave them; but it looks MUCH NICER if you undo the knot and sew the ends together with a sewing machine. With matching thread and a zigzag stitch, just overlap the ends about 1/2 inch and sew together.

To finish off, just tie a really tight double knot, and trim the yarn. It doesn’t really work to weave in the ends with t-shirt yarn.

Optional: for a more polished look, once your blanket is your desired length, you may choose to single-crochet all the way around your blanket (i.e. across the top, down one side, across the bottom, and then up the other side.) I omitted this step in three of my four blankets and liked the look without. Tie a tight knot and trim yarn.

Postscript:
You may be wondering, “What about your son? Did the blanket help him sleep??” Unfortunately, he didn’t really take to the weighted blanket. He’s really teeny-tiny (at almost five years old he weighs only 32lbs!) and has poor coordination, so a heavy blanket wasn’t the right fit for him right now. He ended up requiring prescribed medication to help him sleep through the night. But maybe he will like it when he’s a bit bigger.

Maybe Someday.

Hi friends.

No, I haven’t finished my series on the crunchy community, and honestly, I don’t know if/when it will ever get done.

I’m just writing in to say that I haven’t forgotten about the blog, but I don’t know if/when I will ever continue.

Life has been hard these last four years, and has just gotten harder in the last few months.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last few years it’s that when things are hard, buckle up, because they’re only going to get harder.

Maybe someday things will get easier. Maybe someday I’ll be able to follow my dreams and create art and beauty and new life.

But today I just have to get through the day. And that’s probably how it’s going to go for years to come.

(To be clear, nothing dramatic has happened or changed in my life. Just all of the same — no sleep, no answers — but a little bit worse.)

If you want to know what I’m up to, I’m sometimes active on Instagram.

Why are we so drawn to alternative medicine?

Photo credit

The other day I began my story of how I fell in love — and then out of love — with the crunchy community. I said I wanted to explore some of the dangers and pitfalls of the wellness industry.

But before I spend too much time discussing the negative sides of “crunchy living” and alternative medicine, I wanted to take a moment to acknowledge that alternative healing practices definitely have their strengths and benefits, and I totally understand their allure.

Many of us turned to alternative medicine when conventional medicine failed us.

Because the truth is, the conventional (Western) medicine model can be very disempowering for patients.

The doctor typically holds all the power: it’s their office; you go in on their time. They tell you what to do. They decide your prescription and the dose, and tell you when to come back.

They often use unfamiliar, infantilizing jargon that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and belittled. And they often shame you if you admit to googling your symptoms or trying out alternative healing practices. It can feel like they don’t want you to have any agency in your own wellness.

No matter how old, intelligent, or experienced you are, you often leave a doctor’s office feeling like a child. It’s a relationship where the doctor knows everything and you know nothing.

We often come out of a doctor’s office feeling like we weren’t heard or taken seriously. We often feel like there is nothing we can do to aid in our own healing. And we feel like our doctors don’t take into account our whole selves: we don’t feel like our spiritual and emotional selves are acknowledged.

And that’s if we can even get ourselves to step through the door. Hospitals and doctor’s offices are often cold, sterile, unwelcoming places. They tend to be crowded and busy, and we feel anonymous. Monitors beep, we stand in lines, everything smells antiseptic. Most of us will do just about anything to avoid going there in the first place.

Compare that to many holistic wellness centers, which are typically more welcoming and empowering. The floors are often carpeted and you’re encouraged to take off your shoes. There is often soothing music playing, and diffusers bubbling with calming essential oils. The lights may be dimmed and there is probably a potted succulent on the receptionist’s desk.

Your alternative healthcare provider often listens carefully as you discuss not only your source of pain, but your daily routine, your diet, your emotional responses to you suffering, and alternative remedies you’ve tried. They take you seriously when you say you’ve tried acupuncture or cutting out gluten. They typically use language you understand. They often offer a number of options and encourage you to find a dose that works for you. They might give you their email address in case you have additional questions for later.

You typically leave a wellness center feeling like a whole person who is actively participating in finding a solution.

And sometimes you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home. The Internet offers an infinite number of ideas, suggestions, and solutions. There are millions of people out there telling you that you can take control of your own health. You just have to read the right books, eat the right food, do the right exercises, or take the right supplements.

Who wouldn’t want to go that route over the medical route if possible?

Well, unfortunately, I’ve discovered firsthand that there are some problems inherent in the alternative health model as well.

For one thing, alternative healthcare is not as well regulated, so a lot of nonsense – often dangerous — can slip in. There is often not enough accountability for peddlers of alternative medicine.

And sometimes the burden of figuring things out for yourself can become overwhelming rather than empowering.

And when alternative healing doesn’t work, you can wind up feeling like you didn’t try hard enough, or that you’re just too lazy, or any number of self-defeating things.

And it’s these problems that I want to explore a bit more in future posts.

Thanks for following along!

The Problem with the Crunchy Community: An Intro (My Story)

My crunchy journey started around 2010, when I found myself unable to get pregnant after a year of trying. I found my family doctor completely and utterly useless in the matter, so I turned to the Internet.

There, I discovered a world where toxins are everywhere, trying to sabotage our health. The Standard American Diet is leaving us sick and disordered. The medical community is keeping secrets because it profits from our lack of health.

I bought into it completely. Vibrant health (including fertility) could be achieved with knowledge, hard work, and and the right foods and exercises.

And, I mean, why wouldn’t I buy right into it? After another year of trying — this time armed with traditional foods, supplements, and nontoxic cleaners and body products — I did finally get pregnant. I gave birth (at home, of course) to a robustly healthy little girl. I fed her all the right foods (including breast milk, of course) right from the start, ensuring a healthy future for her.

It was an incredible victory.

I did all the same hard work to get pregnant a second time, two years later. This time I gave birth to a beautiful, nine-pound boy with blond hair. A miracle. My dreams had all come true. Because I had done everything right.

Until I found out that my beautiful baby had been born with a genetic, life-threatening disease, and would need every conceivable medical intervention to survive, from tube-feeding and antibiotics to genetically modifying his white blood cells. And even if we saved his life, he would probably deal with health and developmental issues for the rest of his life.

I learned something very hard in that first year with my second child: nothing can guarantee vibrant health. NOTHING.

* * *

To be honest, I still have a crunchy soul.

I still believe there is healing power in good food and nature. I still believe there is a lot of toxicity in our modern world, thanks to greed + industrialization. I still believe there are limits to what the medical community can offer, and that answers to real health and wellness may often come from outside that world. I still see incredible value in turning to more traditional ways of living for healing.

I still buy mostly organic food, I cook from scratch as much as possible, and I try to avoid pharmaceuticals unless absolutely necessary. I don’t use anything with synthetic fragrances and I avoid plastics.

But I have come to better appreciate what the scientific and medical community can offer us.

And even more importantly, I’ve come to see that there are dangers hidden within the crunchy community, too.

Three Major Problems with the Cult of Health and Wellness

Over time, I’ve noticed a few major problems that can arise from the being active in the crunchy community. These are all things I’ve experienced personally:

  1. It offers a false sense of control over our health.
  2. It puts unreasonable pressure on individuals to pursue unattainable health.
  3. It ignores and demonizes the very real and good gifts that medicine and science have to offer.

Over the next couple of weeks,* in a short series of posts, I want to explore each of these issues separately.

These issues around being “crunchy” are things I’ve been wrestling with for the last couple of years, and I just felt it was time to try to articulate them, for myself if for no one else.

I will be very interested in hearing your experiences along the way!

*Or months, if I’m being realistic. I have drafts written already but they are a mess. And I have no idea when I’ll get another good night’s sleep.

5 Things I Learned This Winter (2019)

Winter has always been hard for me.

Seasonal affective disorder runs in my family. Every winter we Friesens all turn into those sad, shriveled little plant creatures in Ursula’s garden in The Little Mermaid.

But it became doubly hard when I had a non-ambulatory child. Navigating a stroller through snow and slush is challenging on a good day; and when said kid fights every step of the bundling-up process the whole thing starts to feel completely futile. We end up spending every day indoors.

And winter became triply hard when said kid decided that sleeping at night was irrelevant.

No sunshine + no exercise + no sleep for months on end = not a good recipe for my mental health.

(The meds and respite care I was so excited about a couple of months ago both ended up not working for us so that’s a bummer.)

BUUUUT we did go on a vacation (which was a bit of a mixed bag — see below) AND we started getting a bit more sleep in these last couple of weeks so it’s not all bad!

Anyway, I’m joining Emily P Freeman to share a few of the things I learned this winter.

1. Family vacations are better with friends when you have young kids.

Last year we went to Florida for ten days to escape the miserable Canadian winter and it was wonderful. The only thing that would have made it better was friends (especially for Lydia, who got bored and lonely without anyone to play with.)

This year we decided to go again — but this time for two weeks, and with another family with young kids. And it was so great!

For one thing, when we all got hit by a violent stomach bug in the first week (EVERY SINGLE ONE OF US), it was really helpful to have another pair of adults to take care of things when one of us was puking our guts out or cleaning toddler vomit out of our hair.

There were four whole adults to take turns with dishwasher duty or to grab diapers from the grocery store, or to google the best route to the zoo. I felt it gave us all a chance to relax a little more than we would have on our own.

And it was so lovely for Lydia to have a playmate around the clock! She was so much happier with a friend.

(Also? We saved so much money! We were able to split the cost of the villa and groceries, making it a very affordable vacation.)

2. I love owning a Kindle Fire.

Our family has never owned a tablet or e-reader before this February, so I didn’t know what I was missing. (We tend to be very late adopters of technology, mostly for financial reasons.)

Anyway, we already owned two laptops and a smartphone each. What else could a tablet possibly offer, I wondered?

Turns out, a lot!

A sweet and generous Internet Friend intuited that I would enjoy having a device on which to read e-books, and decided to gift me a Kindle.

(She consulted me about other e-reader options, but we decided together that a Kindle Fire would probably be most beneficial because I rely heavily on the library and wanted to be able to borrow books using Overdrive and Hoopla. Most other e-readers, including the Kindle Paperwhite, unfortunately, aren’t compatible with those apps, at least in Canada. A Kindle Fire, I learned, is basically just a regular tablet, on which you can link to the Internet and download all sorts of apps; but you can also read e-books on it. I worried at first that it would be uncomfortable to read books off of a screen, but friends assured me they did it all the time and loved it.)

So I got the Kindle Fire. And I can’t believe what I was missing!

One of the first things I did was install Hoopla and download the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels I’ve been pining over ever since we finished the TV series on Netflix. And it worked so great! And looked so beautiful on the screen! I was smitten.

I can finally borrow e-books from the library! I can take advantage of those Kindle deals I’m always seeing! I can read with one hand while holding a cranky Felix! YAY!

3. A Kindle Fire (or other tablet) is an AMAZING resource for homeschooling.

So the NEXT thing I did after tracking down the Avatar books was to download a few free educational games for Lydia to play. And wow! They’re so great! She loves them, and learned so much within the first week! I am just blown away.

As you know, we unschool, and I believe the best and most meaningful learning happens in real life (e.g. the best math learning happens when you save and spend actual money, or take measurements for an actual project, etc). It also works best when it’s self-directed. But sometimes I still wonder if Lydia could benefit from practising traditional math equations and things like that; but that is just not something she’s interested in doing.

Well, there’s an app for that! Or more like, a few dozen!

For example, Pet Bingo has Lydia doing the equivalent of six sheets of math equations to earn a “pet” that she can name and feed and play with. She’ll happily sit and do math for an hour just to find out what cute pet she’ll get. She begs to play! To do MATH EQUATIONS.

These apps are so great for assuaging any worries that she’s not learning enough “school-ish” stuff. (What if she has to take tests for higher education in the future??) And they’re fun enough that she chooses to play out of her own free will.

I feel like an hour of Khan Academy Kids on the Fire is roughly the equivalent of a day at school. Throw in an episode of Wild Kratts and some time at the park/forest/pool/ice rink/etc, and BOOM: you’ve got a pretty well-rounded education for an elementary-school-aged kid.

They’re so accessible, too: the new Fire HD 8 costs about $100 CAD (or less in the US), and I haven’t spent a dollar so far on apps. For that one-time cost you get a whole world of educational material at your fingertips.

I can’t wait to see what else we discover together!

4. Salt Matters.

I guess this was the season that people either felt really sorry for me or just really appreciated me (HA!) because I got another gift in the mail from an Internet Friend: The book Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat.

It’s a beautiful book jam-packed with cooking wisdom, and so far I’ve only gotten through the the part on salt. And it convinced me to splurge on some more expensive salts. (She suggests that the two things worth spending more money on are salt and olive oil).

I’d been buying Real Salt for a number of years, but recently decided I should try to save money and just buy some generic sea salt. Salt is salt, right?? But I was surprised to find I was consistently dissatisfied with the results.

Turns out, not all salt is created equal. And different salts work better for different things. The texture of the crystals has a surprising effect on how we experience the flavour. Samin explained it all to me and I suddenly understood why I wasn’t loving the salt I’d bought. (It’s fine for some things, though.)

So I bought another bag of my beloved Real Salt (Really, it’s an extra $9 every six months or so, and it’s a saltier salt so it goes further; and also some fancy fleur to sel for really special occasions.

In fact, I used the fluer de sel for finishing some edamame last week and it elevated the dish from pretty good to sublime.

Who knew salt could make such a difference?

Well, that’s about it for today!

What did you learn this winter?

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Three Resources to Get You Excited About Food Again

breadCan you see the exhaustion in my eyes? You know what, don’t answer that

Note: I am not being compensated for any of these reviews. LOLOLOL, as if someone would pay me for something. I just wanted to share a few things I enjoyed. Amazon links are affiliate links, though.

I’ve been passionate about food production my whole adult life. I love growing it, shopping for it, and preparing it. (Obviously I love eating it, too; but honestly I derive just as much pleasure from squatting in the soil and filling a bowl with fragrant home-grown strawberries as I do the actual eating.)

But like any passion, it ebbs and flows with the passing of time. The last four years have not been very conducive to nurturing my love for food production (or anything else, for that matter) as I’ve had to pour all my energy into parenting a disabled child. It’s been hard. Getting food onto the table for my family these days often feels like an insurmountable burden on my already-bowed back. I’ve found myself reaching more and more for convenience foods and takeout just to keep everyone alive.

I recently decided I needed to nurture my lost enthusiasm for food production by revisiting some of the resources that got me excited about it in the first place. After all, seed-starting season is just around the corner, and last summer we built some raised beds in our sunny front yard with the hope that maybe this year we’ll be able to reap a harvest. (All past attempts to grow anything in our shady back yard have been deeply disappointing.) And along the way I happened to stumble upon a few new ones.

If you could use a boost of energy when it comes to feeding your loved ones, consider checking out of one these resources.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.

book

I first read this book when Lydia was a baby and it was a life-changer. Kingsolver, who is a brilliant novelist, writes about her family’s experience devoting one year to eating locally. For twelve months, they dedicate themselves to eating only what they can grow themselves or what they can buy from local farmers within their community. While she’s telling the story she teaches us the basic principles of gardening and poultry farming (They raise chickens and turkeys for eggs and meat). The book is filled with gorgeous descriptions of her garden produce that will make you want to run outside and till up the earth. It also contains reflections on the current (completely unsustainable) state of food production and consumption in the United States. It is both personal and informative, and will get you thinking about where your food comes from.

(I originally read the library’s copy of this book many years ago; this time around I listened to it as an audiobook. I then decided it was important enough to own, so I also bought a hard copy to foist upon friends.)

Cooked with Michael Pollan (Netflix).

This Netflix documentary series is based on the book of the same name (which I haven’t read, because that would require two hands that aren’t filled with a screaming child twenty hours a day). It’s divided into four parts, each focusing on one of the four elements — fire, water, air, and earth. As we learn about these four elements we also travel through human history: how we learned to roast meat over fire; how we learned to cook vegetation in pots; how we learned to infuse air into milled grains to create bread; and how we learned to ferment food (especially milk) with microbes before we even knew what they were. So it’s a lesson in anthropology as well as food science, history, geography, and more. Pollan also explores how the mechanization and commercialization of food production by corporations has influenced the ways we eat all around the globe today.

And along the way, you might find yourself developing a deep desire to reconnect with your food. (My husband stayed up and watched the Air episode with me one night and now he wants to learn to master sourdough). And did I mention it’s gorgeously produced? The visuals are absolutely stunning.

This quote from his book really stood out to me: “Is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienating, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for the people you love?” WOW. I love how affirming that is to the home cook.

(Caveat: the first episode on fire has a large emphasis on meat, and therefore on animal killing. If that kind of thing upsets you, you might want to enter with care. There are some pretty graphic scenes right in the beginning of some Indigenous Australian women bashing iguanas to death to roast whole in a bed of hot coals. You also see halved pigs get barbecued over a huge fire.)

Salt Fat Acid Heat with Samin Nosrat (Netflix).

This is another book-turned-Netflix-documentary, a format which is perfect for the parent of never-sleeping children. I watched all four episodes in the dead of night with a kid on my lap. It will make you want to get into the kitchen just for the joy and deliciousness of it.

Like Cooked, it’s divided into four parts, which Nosrat claims are the four building-blocks of flavour. She’s less cerebral than Pollan, and dives into cookery head-first (she’s a chef by trade). She exudes energy and delight for food.

The episode on fat takes her to Italy, where she looks at olive oil, pork fat, and Parmesan cheese. The episode on salt takes her to Japan where she explores sea salt and soy sauce. The episode on acid takes her to Mexico where citrus fruits are a staple in making delicious food. And the episode on heat has her in her home city of Berkeley where she cooks with her mom. The whole series is fun and exuberant, but the trip to Italy was my favourite.

PS I love her casual approach to cooking, her willingness to try new and strange things, and the way she gets her hands right into everything she cooks. She’s a delightful guide.

That’s it for now! Do you have any hands-free resources to recommend to continue fuelling my passion for food?

In Defense of Minimalism: Some Responses to Criticism

felted crocheted hearts

Author’s note: I wrote this post about a year ago, but never published it because I couldn’t wrap it up tidily with a neat conclusion. Buuuut considering the sudden and recent renewed interest in decluttering thanks to Netflix’s new Tidying Up series, I thought I’d go ahead and publish it as it is. Let me know what you think!

I’ve been coming across a bit of criticism of minimalism lately.

I’ve written a fair amount on the subject in the past, so I always perk up when I hear it mentioned.

And almost every time I hear it criticized, one of the first thoughts I have is, “That’s not my understanding of minimalism.”

So I thought I’d take a look at some of these critiques and offer some counterpoints.

But first off, a definition and some clarifications.

“Minimalism” can be used to define a certain kind of aesthetic as well as a lifestyle. They do not necessarily overlap.

Minimalism as an aesthetic is generally recognized by pared down design elements. Most people conjure up mental images of monochromatic colour schemes, clean lines, bare walls, and a perfectly-matching “capsule wardrobe.” Lots of neutral colours, white paint, and sparse decor. Simplicity.

Minimalism as a lifestyle (at least as far I understand it) means intentionally choosing to own fewer possessions. It means paring down to what is essential in life, and getting rid of excess. It’s about letting go of whatever isn’t serving you. This can look different ways for different people.

Like I said, I don’t think these two forms of minimalism necessarily go hand-in-hand. I think you can practice minimalism while still adorning your house and body with lots of colour and flourish.

I don’t have much to say about minimalism as an aesthetic. Some people find it boring. Some people find it calming and refreshing. My response is, That’s totally subjective, and You do you. I like certain things about it, but you definitely wouldn’t walk into my house and immediately say, “Ahhh — you guys are minimalists!”

I’ve written before about what I think are the merits of a minimalist lifestyle, so I won’t go much into it here. In short, I think minimalism can bring freedom, and is generally good for our (mental, physical, and spiritual) health, as well as the planet.

Below are a couple of critiques I’ve recently heard regarding minimalism, and some of my thoughts on them.

October leaves

“Minimalists think they’re better than everyone else.”

I found this complaint in an article entitled, “Minimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy.” The author writes,

There are a million variations [of minimalism] – fitting all your belongings into a single box, small-house or van living, radical de-cluttering, extreme purges of technology or social activity, etc – but they all hold the same vague, usually unspoken level of superiority.

She later elaborates,

They all imply that they are in some way a moral upgrade from the life of ‘mindless consumerism’… This spiritual minimalism has essentially become yet another competition for who can be the best at whatever you’ve chosen, even if that ‘whatever’ is literally ‘having less shit.’

Okay. So: do minimalists think they’re morally superior? Well, sure, some of them probably do. Maybe even lots of them. But isn’t every subculture susceptible to this kind of snobbery? Even ones that are supposedly based in humility, like Christianity? I’ve heard people complain about the same kind of thing from vegans, democrats, globetrotters, health/fitness fanatics, academics, and artists.

And they’re probably right — to a degree. It’s a problem you’ll find within just about any group, whether it’s centered around a certain philosophy, career path, political affiliation, lifestyle, or religion. We choose these paths because we think they have merit. We think they’re good. And within any subculture, some people are going to be snobs about it.

You can be pretentious about your lifestyle choices or you can be humble about them, whatever they may be.

I’ve heard people be smug and moralistic about their literary tastes. I’ve heard people humblebrag about where they choose to live (i.e. rural vs urban setting). I’ve heard them speak paternalistically about how they spend their money (“Ahem… We value experiences over things”). I’ve even heard people argue haughtily about whose income is further below the poverty line.

I’ve also known some truly humble minimalists, who just don’t want to be caught up in materialism, and are using minimalist principles to make ends meet.

There’s nothing inherently pompous about choosing minimalism — no more than anything else.

And have I ever been douchey about minimalism? Yeah… probably. Sorry about that. I’m a human, and was born desperate for love and validation. I’m trying to do better.

felted wool bowl

“Minimalism is just for rich people.”

I’ve been hearing this one a lot lately. In the article I quoted above, the author argues that “the only people who can ‘practice’ minimalism in any meaningful way are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistical circumstances.” In other words, poor people don’t have the freedom to choose minimalism. They already don’t have enough. Therefore minimalism is only for the privileged.

She further points out that

Being minimalist in this way […] really just means having enough upfront disposable money to “invest” in your wardrobe and surroundings. Reducing a wardrobe down to a few painfully elegant cashmere-cotton blend tops is only really possible if you can put down at least $1,000 in one go for the creation of your “capsule wardrobe.”

She concludes that “Minimalism is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world: ‘Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy!’”

There is definitely some merit to this argument.

Yes, minimalism requires a certain amount of privilege. Truly impoverished and marginalized people don’t have to resources or social capital to “konmari” their homes.

As this article, entitled “The Problem with Minimalism,” explains: “Minimalism is largely something only well-off people can afford to pursue, because their wealth provides a cushion of safety. If they get rid of something, and then need it later, they’ll just buy it again. They don’t need to carry much else besides a wallet when they’re out and about; if they need something, they’ll just buy it on the fly. No sweat. If you’re not so well-off, however, having duplicates of your possessions can be necessary, even if such back-ups ruin the aesthetics of owning just 100 possessions. “

These are great points.

But you don’t have to be wealthy to choose to pare down your possessions or to choose to live with less than your neighbours.

You don’t have to buy one pair of $200 jeans so you can turn up your nose at the rest.

You can totally be a minimalist who shops at thrift stores.

In fact, I’ve found that minimalism has made it easier to live on a budget.

And part of the reason I know this is because I’ve heard so many lower-middle-income people say that minimalism has actually helped them live on a budget. Striving to own fewer possessions makes it easier to get by on less.

My own family lives on an income below the poverty line, and minimalism helps make that possible.

It’s partly because I don’t have a huge wardrobe, or buy the kids a ton of toys, or own a lot of electronic devices, that we can afford to survive on one small income.

tulips

“Minimalism isn’t Christian because it’s focused on the self.”

I heard this criticism come up on a podcast that I actually really love, called The Upside Down Podcast. The hosts attempt to differentiate between minimalism and “downward mobility.” “Downward mobility,” they argue, is a lifestyle choice focused on the well-being of others. Minimalism, by contrast, is just about improving your own life and your own well-being, so it’s not inherently Christian.

However, I think this contrast is based on a false dichotomy between helping yourself and helping others. I don’t think these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes, helping yourself is also good for the people around you.

Choosing minimalism for your own benefit is not like greed, wherein your help yourself at the expense of someone else.

I think practicing minimalism can be mutually beneficial, to you and the people around you. Of course, minimalism is not automatically or inherently helpful to the people around you; but I think if done well and with the right spirit, it can benefit others beyond yourself.

If you pare down your possessions to the things you actually need and use, you can give the excess to people who could make use of those things. Instead of hanging onto things that will just gather dust in your basement, you can share them with people who might actually use and appreciate them.

Less clutter in your own life can also bring you more peace, time and energy, that you can then share with others.

So do I think minimalism inherently Christian? Well, no, of course not. You can be a minimalist and a totally self-centered douchecanoe. And you can totally be a Christian without practicing minimalism.

But greed, by contrast, definitely is NOT Christian, and I think minimalism can be a very useful tool to fight against greed.

Some of the central tenets of Jesus’ message include generosity, sacrifice, sharing, and equity. His gospel is about lowering yourself and lifting others up.

I personally think minimalism aligns with that message, if it is done with a spirit of generosity and love.

* * *

So these are just a few of my thoughts when it comes to criticism of minimalism.

What do you think?

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What’s Saving My Life Right Now

frost

Hi, friends! I thought I’d pop in today to share some positivity: here are six things that are making life better for me these days.

1. Antidepressants for my preschooler.

This past October we hit a wall with Felix’s sleep. He was nearing four years old and still not sleeping through the night — in fact, it was just getting worse. he was up 3-5 hours every night and it was taking its toll on the whole family. We were all miserable and barely functioning. So I finally took him to his pediatrician and said, “HELP.”

She looked into my bloodshot eyes and decided to prescribe him an antidepressant that causes drowsiness as a side effect. I’m about as anti-drug as you can get but I was desperate and willing to try anything. We started giving it to him every night before bed.

His sleep has improved immensely since then. He almost always sleeps until at least 4:30 am; and when he does wake up at night, he usually falls back asleep within an hour.

Everyone is happier, including Felix.

2. Respite care for my preschooler.

felix and me

In my mid-October desperation I also reached out to our family coordinator who had helped us apply for funding for respite care for Felix earlier in the year. The application had been accepted months earlier, but we’d been informed that there was an unusually long waiting period for the funding to actually kick in. Like, up to a year’s wait.

The coordinator sensed the desperation in my voice and applied for some temporary, private funding to hold us over until the government funding could take over.

So now we have funding for six hours of respite care a week. His worker picks him up to go to her house, and for six hours a week I can spend time focusing on Lydia’s homeschooling, or housecleaning, or even on myself. When he comes home I am refreshed and happy to see him. It’s been pretty glorious.

3. Crafting.

You guys have seen me take up crocheting and then knitting and then watercolour painting. And over the last year I’ve also become obsessed with calligraphy.

A week or two ago my mom asked me if I would do some hand-lettering on some wood discs she’d cut up in my dad’s shop and I happily obliged. And I was so pleased with the results I started making some for friends and then I started to offer them for sale on social media to local friends.

Before I knew it, I was getting Ben to slice up branch after branch and drill and spray my little creations as I pumped out more hand-lettered ornaments. It was kind of taking over my life. And I LOVED every minute.

I really don’t have time for this nonsense. And I only made enough money to cover costs plus a little extra so I could buy even more to my craft supplies, but it was so satisfying to be creative. Crafting just makes my life better.

I feel most like myself when I’m making beautiful things.

4. Walter Geoffrey the Frenchie.

walter

Guys, I’m not really into pet Instagram accounts. But a few months ago I stumbled upon WalterGeoffreytheFrenchie and . . . just . . . WOW. Have you seen this guy?? Oh my goodness. He gives me life. He’s an adorable but opinionated French bulldog with an incredibly unique . . . I’m gonna say, voice? Nothing perks me up like Walter’s bizarre, one-of-a-kind screaming.

Watch this video to get a taste of his personality if you haven’t already met Walter. And then follow his Instagram. If you’re feeling down in the dumps, I promise he will cheer you up.

5. Pentatonix Christmas music.

To add to the list of things I’m not really into: Christmas music. I’m generally just not a fan.

But I love Pentatonix Christmas music. I love a cappella in general, and I specifically love the way they infuse new energy into old Christmas songs. And they have like seven Christmas albums. I will happily listen to Pentatonix all December. (I just listen to them on Spotify.) Give them a listen if you haven’t already!

6. The new local shawarma place.

shawarma

Our small, rural, mostly-white town isn’t known for its cuisine. Nobody drives to our town to get dinner (although our Vietnamese restaurant has the best pho in the county). We’ve had a hard time finding a place to get takeout when we want to get dinner on a short notice, and have basically only patronized the local Vietnamese restaurant for the last decade.

But our town recently got a new shawarma place and it is the best. Since we discovered it a month ago we have been getting takeout from there on almost a weekly basis. For $15 we can get a huge shawarma plate containing enough food for both me and Ben — we each get one wrap, plus three delicious sides. It is making me so happy.

That’s about it for now! What’s been saving your life these days?

PS follow me on Instagram to see what I’m up to on a day-to-day basis!



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