I used to write a retrospective of each passing year until I had twins and just about everything disappeared in a fiery crash. This year I decided to pick it up again. I’m sharing it with you because it’s fun and fluffy and not too scary.
- What did you do in 2016 that you’d never done before?
I started working out with a personal trainer.
I took a kid to the hospital with a broken bone.
The police brought one of my kids home (not the same one).
- Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Last year on New Year’s Day I was on a liquid diet recovering from dental surgery and had to visit the ER with some weird fever and irregular heartbeats. I’m sure I didn’t make any other New Year Resolution than “survive 2016.” And I did!! Go me!
This year, my only resolution is to heed my own advice and live fearlessly. I have the “Fearless Family Life” thing down but I’m a fearful insecure person on just about everything else, especially my own creative endeavors. This year, I want to launch into crowd funding and try to get published. Both will require uncomfortable amounts of vulnerability and fearlessness, things I don’t have in spades.
- Did anyone close to you give birth?
My cousin gave birth to her first child and a lifelong family friend gave birth to twin girls. Many many friends and acquaintances gave birth. Congratulations mamas!!
- Did anyone close to you die?
My sister’s mother-in-law died of cancer in 2016. I had not known her very long but she was such a kind and caring person that one could not help but feel close to her. At her funeral Mass, the large church was full to the rafters. Her death made me reflect on how I wanted to touch those around me, how I wanted to be remembered.
- What countries did you visit?
None. Not even my own. I visited South Korea through the tv series Descendants of the Sun and the northern coast of Spain through Gran Hotel. That counts right?
- What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2016?
Health, fitness, a positive self-image and confidence? And the right meds to achieve it.
- What dates from 2016 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
I don’t remember dates. The winter of 2016 is one big blur, I don’t even recall it happening at all. I’m assuming nothing noteworthy happened although I’m sure my family will let me know by email if I’m off the mark. The Spring of 2016 was when homeschooling wrapped me up and we rolled into the Summer holidays a little early.
- What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Giving up gluten for good. Finding Ritter’s Rum Soaked Raisins chocolate again after a too long absence.
- What was your biggest failure?
I got pregnant with my 10th child in 2015 and was due to deliver on March 30th 2016. That didn’t happen. Homeschooling was a big fat fail. Not because I think that sending the children back to school is a failure: our other children have done very well in school and I’m one of a handful of homeschoolers who believes that kids do learn something in school. The failure was to live up to my own standards, of still not being the person I want to be. Homeschooling has taken a lot out of me, and I’m proud of myself for having tried. But doing so prevented me from developing skills in the things I am good at such as writing and music. When I look back at our homeschooling adventure, I don’t (yet) see much to show for it. I’m sure perspective will grow on me like moss, with time and a peaceful spot in the shade.
- Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nothing new this year. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is still kicking my ass daily.
- What was the best thing you bought?
Chocolate, Pu Er tea and the entire Nashville discography.
- Where did most of your money go?
Depends how you look at it. Most of our family’s income goes to taxes. If you consider after-tax money, the mortgage is probably the largest number on the family’s spreadsheet.
- What did you get really excited about?
Starting music again. I had my Taylor guitar repaired and started playing for the first time in 10 years. I also learned to play the piano enough to play at church. Playing at church just about kills me every week but it gives me the motivation to practice. I occasionally sing with my daughters – at home, not at church — when they indulge me. Singing with my daughters is the single best part of my days when it happens.
- What song will always remind you of 2016?
Probably Alexander Hamilton
- Compared to this time last year, are you:
– happier or sadder? Roughly the same but more frazzled so I’ll say “happier” just because I WANT TO BELIEVE!
– thinner or fatter? Thinner by a whopping 5 lbs on a good month. Same on a bad one. Thanks for nothing thyroid jerk.
– richer or poorer? Richer
- What do you wish you’d done more of?
Writing. Finishing stuff.
- What do you wish you’d done less of?
Anxiate. Is that a verb? Compare myself to better-looking and more talented people. Believe that there’s no point writing because the world doesn’t need another book/song/blog post, especially not one written by someone less talented than (fill blank with current literary obsession).
- How did you spend Christmas?
Éloïse summed it up nicely on Twitter:
chicken pox is in the house:
my dads side of the family is staying as far away of us as they can, my moms side is invading with 34 people
— elo (@eloisedeg) December 26, 2016
- What was your favorite TV program?
Nashville and Gran Hotel
- What were your favorite books of the year?
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King), Far from the Madding Crowd (Thomas Harding), Writing Better Lyrics (Pat Pattison) and Au Bonheur des Dames (Émile Zola)
- What was your favorite music from this year?
The Nashville Soundtrack, Half Moon Run, Miranda Lambert, The Lumineers, Hamilton.
- What were your favorite films of the year?
I saw three movies released in 2016: Fantastic Beasts, some kid movie I can’t recall and LaLaLand. Of the three, LaLaLand was my favorite.
- What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 43 and I was in Toronto with Éloïse, Marie and a friend for the Pentatonix / Us the Duo concert at the ACC.
- What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Losing the 20 lbs I should have lost a long time ago given the way I eat and exercise. Oh well, I didn’t gain 50 more pounds and that’s satisfying, I guess.
- How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2016?
Flowy tops from Winners, jeans from Mark’s.
- What kept you sane?
Music and exercise, thyroid meds and a generous side of chocolate.
- Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2016.
“Think small to go big”. That’s from Seth Godin. I had been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to make my blog “go big”. I wanted to write the type of posts that make blogs popular – read: “earn income” — but I was in a conundrum because I don’t read any blogs that are popular. I was stuck trying to put out a message that I wouldn’t read if someone else posted it. That’s when I heard Seth Godin on the Tim Ferriss podcast say “Think small to go big.” Meaning that if you can’t touch one person’s life, what makes you think that you can touch a million? I realized that being able to interact with my readers one-on-one, knowing them by name, being friends on social media, was what made my content special to my readers. I’ll never have the mean or fluffy streak that makes blogs go viral because I’m always striving for a genuine contact. When I accepted that this was the smaller and slower approach I wanted to maintain, it freed me to look for alternative methods of generating income online such as crowd funding. I don’t know if I will ever earn anything that way — it’s hard to convince people to pay for something they have been getting for free for years — but at least it will be on my own terms. And as a creative type, that’s the best I can hope for.
** This week’s podcast on self-care and was inspired by this blog post, originally published on Vie de Cirque in 2015. **
As a mother of many, I am often asked about self-care and finding time for oneself in the midst of chaos. Where can a mother find peace when the things that bring her joy — like hobbies and travels — are incompatible with parenting a tribe?
The question of “me-time” is one that is close to my heart because everyone wants to know. In an article for the Ottawa Citizen published in January 2014, I answered that I had to find “me-time” in the midst of chaos. It’s true but simplistic. The ability to find inner peace when your life is a pinball machine is a work in progress. I often feel like I am hanging to sanity by the tip of my fingers. So how do I go about finding my place in a household where my work is forever answering everybody’s pressing demands but mine?
To explain my understanding of self-care, I must go back a few years. I got pregnant with my oldest child when I was 21, unmarried and in Law School. My boyfriend (now husband) was a junior officer in the Armed Forces. He was deployed overseas and we didn’t move-in together until shortly before our first child was born. Our second child was born 14 months later. People around us quietly believed that our hasty marriage was doomed from the start. My husband deployed overseas again and our third child was conceived upon his return. I finished my law degree while expecting her. My husband’s traveling schedule and the demands of providing for a growing family were such that we decided that he would work while I stayed home with the children. I decided not to write the Bar exams at that time: the cost of putting 3 children in daycare while I pursued my studies for an intense year of studies, work placements and exams.
After our third child was born, we decided that our family was complete. I always dreamed of having 5 children, as had my husband, but I was hanging to sanity by the tip of my fingers. That’s when our fourth child was conceived and born. When I think back on that period of my life, I hear the song from Emmylou Harris Red Dirt Girl:
Nobody knows when she started her skid, she was only 27 and she had 5 kids
I was severely struggling with my imposed vocation as a stay-at-home mother of four young children. I had studied to become a lawyer, a challenging course of studies where I had excelled. Now I was a full-time mother in full downfall from my pedestal. My peers were starting to advance in their careers, moving into cute houses in trendy neighbourhoods. I was moving out of a world of visibility and rewards and into a world of invisibility feeling like a failure. People my age had no children, my friends with children had 10 years on me and had chosen to stay home. I was dreaming of living in a trendy neighbourhood with matching furniture as opposed to my perfectly adequate little semi-detached house with a mismatch of hand-me-down pieces.
I was neither very good or very happy in my vocation. I was trapped in a spiral of self-loathing, grasping at anything that made me feel better, regardless of whether it was good, healthy or moral. I believed that my unhappiness was the result of forgetting myself for too long. Of neglecting my goals and ambitions in the pursuit of an ideal that wasn’t mine. But the more “me time” I took the deeper I sank.
It took a ride to rock bottom before I understood that my family and I were in this together. That focusing on me at the exclusion of my family was robbing Peter to pay Paul.
Mothers: there is no amount of stuff, credit, spa treatments and girls nights out that can buy you happiness in your marriage and family. So often I read desperate pleas from mothers who cannot find peace and happiness in their own family and there is always someone to suggest more “me time”. A night away, a day at the spa, a week in a resort, working outside the home. Don’t get me wrong: I love a pedicure as much as the next girl. But your happiness and your physical and mental health cannot hinge on an expensive getaway. Or even a cheap one. What I learned from my stay in the trenches of unhappiness is that you can’t outrun yourself. Indulging in temporary make-beliefs only makes the return to reality colder and darker.
Addressing underlying causes of unhappiness can be difficult. Children are too young to understand that they need to give mommy some space. Your life partner should be the one caring for you. If you don’t have a supportive partner, maintaining your sense of balance in family life will fall on your shoulders and you will have to build fences around the non-negotiables of your life. Fences and families don’t mix. If your life partner — husband, boyfriend, mother — is not looking after your needs, you need to fix your relationship. A happy marriage is the most important self-care you can give yourself, not to mention the very thing your children need the most to be happy and secure as they grow.
After I had my 4th child and disappeared in the fog of depression, my husband and I came to the conclusion that I was simply not cut out to be a homemaker. I still believed that having a stay-at-home parent was best for children but I simply couldn’t be that parent. I headed back to school to pursue graduate studies in law. But even though I excelled in my academic studies, the belief that I wasn’t cut out to care for my children was haunting me.
I found work as a political attaché and juggled family life and paid employment for the following 4 years. I learned that nothing was going to be easy. I could work to make our family-work balance manageable or I could work to become the mother I always wanted to be. I chose the later. Nowadays, I am a homeschooling stay-at-home mother. I have the large family I never dared to dream I would have.
Self-care starts with physical and mental health. I try to eat well, not too much, and exercise. I get regular medical check-ups to make sure that any physical or mental struggles are properly identified and treated. I make room for spiritual practices like prayer and a sacramental life. I see a friendly spiritual director and I receive the Sacrament of reconciliation once or twice a month. But where I draw the line for myself is the type of self-care that takes away from my family, whether it is by causing financial strain or emotional absenteeism. If you need to spend money you don’t have, or if you need to completely check-out of your role as mother to feel alive and whole, you need to address the underlying causes of your feelings. Going out with friends, sharing a meal, being pampered or getting relief from your daily occupations are some of life’s greatest pleasures. You should seek these opportunities for the joy they bring you, not as a matter of survival.
My husband and I have turned the self-care equation around. Instead of seeing me as the result of the equation, we’ve made our common vision of family life the result of the equation. Self-care happens in the context of the vision of family life we want to achieve: a happy, united, and well adjusted Catholic, large, homeschooling, family, living in the country. The pursuit of my dreams and ambitions are part of the equation yielding that result. Being physically and mentally fit, growing in faith and fortitude, laughing, looking pretty, feeling like I can leave for a weekend without societal collapse and starvation, are all part of the equation. My husband and children benefit from the result and therefore are part of ensuring that I get enough and adequate self-care. Knowing that they have my well-being in mind frees me from having to worry and pursue my well-being selfishly, like a desert wanderer searches for water. I am no longer afraid of disappearing behind my children because we are a team, not a competition.
Caring for a family of 11 is still hard on a good day and there is precious little time for self-care in the traditional sense. I have to rely on a “broken windows approach” to keeping my essential space in a large family: I don’t share my morning coffee and I am almost obsessive about using the bathroom by myself. I find great joy in having coffee with an old friend, seeing my siblings and my parents, and enjoying a few seconds of quiet in a tidy house (not between 1 and 2 am). There is always someone in my personal space and I have worked hard, emotionally and spiritually, to learn to love it.
Finally feeling good at what I do: that’s better than all the pedicures in the world.
I was going to start this blog post with some poetic musing about life being a winding road and how we don’t always end up where we thought we would. But even winding roads lead somewhere: a ditch, a dead-end, another road, a pretty little cabin in the woods. Life is a series of decisions which have ramifications, consequences, and more decision points. Days grow into weeks, weeks into months, months into years and suddenly you are 43 wondering where the heck it is you’re going. Sorry, am I talking to myself again?
My husband and I have changing our minds and correcting course down to an art form. Blessed are the flexible for they shall not break. In our 20 years of marriage, we’ve owned more cars than we can remember, we moved 10 times within the Ottawa area, bought big houses, sold big houses, bought little houses, sold little houses, rented houses, gutted main floors, finished basements and built from scratch. I have been a student-mom, a stay-at-home mom, a homeschooler, a failed homeschooler, a graduate-student mom, a full-time working mom, a part-time working mom. My husband has worked full-time, part-time, homeschooled when I could not, supported my pipe dreams and ambitions. He has started companies, joined companies, left companies, owned companies, sold companies. In the middle of all this, we had 9 children and lost two to miscarriage. We have lifestyle ADHD I think.
While I envy people who relentlessly pursue one thing, I am pleased by our ability to roll with the punches. We relentlessly pursue the stability of our family, no matter the personal cost. We may not have taken our respective careers in measurably successful paths — unless paying bills counts, which it should — but we know why. When my daughter asked me why I had not pursued a musical, legal or political career, despite my affinities for all three, I told her that I chose my family at every fork in the road. These are not career paths with stable incomes, regular hours and holidays. Each involves a good amount of damning the torpedoes. Maybe life’s road is not so winding after all, it’s more like a river, digging its bed by force of repeated decisions. We follow a road to where it leads us but the river digs its own bed, just like we make our lives to our image.
Last week, my husband and I met with the principal of the nearest French elementary school. See, we’re sending the children back to school after Christmas. With our two teenage daughters starting high school last September, this marks the end of our homeschooling journey. You can learn more about our discernment process by listening to my first podcast on discerning homeschooling.
Un-mixing the mixed feeling is a new journey of discovery and reinvention. In my life, I have accomplished things that required effort, things that required self-discipline, things that required commitment, physically demanding things, emotionally demanding things, everything demanding things. I’ve poured myself out and filled myself up all over again. I’ve stumbled, fell, dusted myself up and picked myself up. I never thought I was cut out for homeschooling but I thought I could channel all my brainpower and energy into this one thing and give it some forward momentum. The kind of energy and brain power I used to power a Master’s degree in Law with a breastfeeding infant, my fifth child, in Montreal, while we lived in Ottawa.
In 2016, I taught myself to knit, play the guitar and the piano, use Adobe InDesign and a few other things. But like my Master’s degree, those are things I can control, only limited by the capacity of my brain and the speed of my fingers. I felt called to homeschool and I thought that I could develop that skill just like music or design. As it turns out, I couldn’t. As it turns out, loving your children is not always enough. As it turns out, things are not as simple as they seem. Homeschooling involves other humans and you can’t switch them on and off.
I have wracked my brain wondering why God would call me to something I was so woefully unable to provide. Why give me talents that are of no use to a mother of many, that stay bottled-up inside, stuck in my throat? Why give me a writing talent I don’t have time to use? Why give me a musical talent I can’t develop? Why give me 9 children and talents that involve quiet introspection? Why wasn’t I equipped with what I needed to answer this call? I don’t know. Either God made a mistake (unlikely) or I’m not humble enough to see the wisdom in the plan (very likely). Or maybe the call was to greater humility, masquerading as a call to homeschool. Maybe homeschooling was the light post I was supposed to walk into.
So my life flows on like a river, part water, part banks, unsure if I am the constraints or the current. At times spectator and actor, it lives me as much as I live it.
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Episode 001. Discerning Homeschooling. Last summer I gave a talk titled “Homeschooling: is it for you?” and I decided to record it as my first podcast episode. I hope you enjoy it!
One of my favourite non-family-related holiday traditions is the browsing of “Best albums of the year” articles, blog posts and podcasts. Back in the days, my holiday music-buying lived and died according to what former broadcaster and pariah Gian Gomeshi offered as his top 20 albums of any given year. Since Gomeshi’s fall from grace, I have not found a compilation that was as consistently up my aisle as his. Oh well.
Now a normal music compilation would give you a list of “Best Albums Released in Given Year” but this is not how my world goes round. I’m a binge-everything. Binge-writer, binge-eater, binge-Netflixer, binge-music-listener. When I love an album, I love it until I break the machine. As a teenager, I warped cassette tapes. I don’t listen to music when it’s released, I listen to music when I want to. As a result, this is a compilation of the best bands and albums I discovered in 2016. I came late to the party on some of them but that should be no reason to neglect them. Happy listening!
1. Half Moon Run. Originally from Montreal, now mostly touring, the band kicked-off their latest tour in Ottawa this December. I went to their show with my oldest daughter, who was a fan back in the days when they drew a crowd of 15 at Ottawa’s Bluesfest. Now critically acclaimed and playing to sold-out mid-sized venues, the time to catch them up-close and personal is surely running out. Music style: alt-pop, Indie rock, rich melodies, vocal harmonies and acoustic arrangements.
On the playlist:
2. Scroobius Pip. I discovered this rapper/Hip hop/spoken word artist through my favourite podcast Sodajerker on Songwriting. As a writer, his work was a revelation to me. It inspired me to start writing my own poetry. My gateway song was The beat that my heart skipped but if you can take a bit of sound distortion, do listen to Magician’s Assistant: It’s brilliantly written, raw and hits you like a gut punch. Music style: Slam poetry, hip hop, spoken word, rap, electronic.
On the playlist:
The beat that my heart skipped
3. The Lumineers. Another discovery through Sodajerker’s interviews. I already knew Ho Hey (because who doesn’t?) but I recently discovered their second album, Cleopatra. The Lumineers are taking the old quip about 3 chords and the truth to it’s most beautiful expression. Their arrangements are creatively minimalist, in the way that only genius musical minds can muster. They don’t rely on instrumentation and over-production to round-out their songs, relying instead on rock-solid melodies, hooks, and riffs on the piano and guitar. Their songs tell stories that are made even more poignant by Wesley Schultz’s haunting voice. You can get a better look at the stories told in Cleopatra by watching the videos. In each video, the characters of the different stories cross paths and impact each other’s lives in direct and indirect ways. Music style: Acoustic, Americana, folk.
On the playlist:
In the light
4. Hamilton. Not having lived completely under a rock, I had heard about the musical Hamilton. I knew it was a phenomenon. I knew that tickets on Broadway were sold out until the cows came home, yadda, yadda, and my friends who loved Hamilton wouldn’t shut up about it already. Still, I was not inspired to listen to it until my 14 year-old daughter bought it on iTunes and it found its way on my phone through a sync accident. Hamilton is the Pulitzer-prize winning, viral, hip hop musical about one of the Founding Fathers. It doesn’t matter how you feel about viral phenomenons, musicals, hip hop or Founding Fathers, Hamilton is the kind of opus that will entertain, educate and punch you in the gut regardless of taste. The songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda are lyrical genius, the main characters of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton capture the human struggle between right and wrong, rationality and emotionality, with accuracy and style. The two Hamilton albums are the musical by the original broadway cast (including composer Lin-Manuel Miranda in the title role) and The Hamilton Mixtape in which various artists offer their takes on the songs and themes of the musical. Music style: hip-hop, rap, musical.
On the playlist:
Aaron Burr, Sir (From the Broadway Cast)
Wait for it (From the Broadway Cast)
The Battle of Yorktown (From the Broadway Cast)
Immigrants (From the Mixtape)
I wrote my way out (From the Mixtape)
Valley Forge (Demo) (From the Mixtape)
5. Sweet Crude. This Indie pop-rock band seeks to revive the traditional sounds of French Louisiana. This is my most recent discovery and I haven’t listened to their work quite enough (yet) to distil it but it’s coming. Their music is dazzling and engaging, it’s like an old-fashioned kitchen party except that everyone can play and sing. Strongly recommended. Music style: acoustic, Indie pop-rock, folk, Americana.
On the playlist:
Parlez-nous à boire
6. The Nashville soundtracks. Nashville is a TV series about the lives of a cast of music-industry types set in the city of Nashville, Tennessee. The characters include country music stars at the top of the heap (Rayna, Juliette), nobodys on their way to stardom (Scarlett, Will), nobodys looking for a break (Gunnar, Layla), the supporting cast of band members, songwriters, managers and producers (Avery, Deacon) and other hangers-on. It ran for 4 seasons on ABC before being canceled and picked-up by CMT when the fans raised enough of a ruckus to bring the show back. The fifth season kicks-off this week with a one-hour sneak-peak at the two-hour premiere scheduled for January 5th. But enough about the TV, the real main character of the show is THE MUSIC. With each season, a full-length EP is released plus single tracks for a total of (at least) 20 songs per season. And what songs! The show creator, Callie Khouri, is married to mega-producer T-Bone Burnett. The music is written for the show by an all-star buffet of Nashville’s best and brightest songwriters and was produced by Burnett first and then by Buddy Miller. The actors are doing their own singing and the music is curated to advance storylines, develop character arches and narrative exposition. Music style: Country, blues-rock, folk, Americana, acoustic, alt-country, country-pop.
It was too hard to pick the best tracks of the 150-or-so songs for the playlist so I went with my favourite combos of characters to songwriters:
On the playlist:
If I didn’t know better (co-written by John Paul White, performed by “Scarlett and Gunnar”)
No one will ever love you (co-written by John Paul White, performed by “Rayna and Deacon”)
Undermine (co-written by Kacey Musgraves, performed by “Juliette and Deacon”)
Changing Grounds (written by Gillian Welch, performed by “Rayna”)
When the right one comes along (co-written by Justin Davis, Sarah Zimmerman and Gloria Middleman, performed by “Scarlett and Gunnar”)
A life that’s good (co-written by Ashley Monroe and Sarah Siskind, performed by “Deacon”)
Lately (co-written by Ashley Monroe and Sarah Siskind, performed by “Scarlett and Gunnar”)
Heart on Fire (co-written by Kate York and Sarah Siskind, performed by “Maddie and Daphne”)
Boomtown (co-written by Maren Morris, performed by “Juliette and Luke”)
I will never let you know (co-written by Kate York, performed by “Scarlett and Gunnar”)
7. John Hiatt. I discovered John Hiatt through the Nashville soundtrack when his hit Have a little faith in me was covered by Maisy Stella and Will Chase. The album Bring the family was his first release following his sobriety. He started recording Have a little faith in me in studio with a heavy arrangement but the session was plagued by setbacks and delays. The next day, he learned of the suicide of his ex-wife and recorded the pared down acoustic version he his most widely known for. The rest is history. This album is no one-hit wonder however: every track is a hit. Music style: Folk, country, blues-rock, Americana.
On the playlist:
Have a little faith in me
Memphis in the meantime
8. Miranda Lambert. Yes. Miranda Lambert. I don’t care how you feel about over-produced blond country singers, this girl is the real deal. For sure, some of her songs are cut for commercial radio success but her early albums were critically acclaimed as well. Pick any of her albums and you will find that most of her songs swing country-country rather than pop-country. I’m partial to Platinum as her best album although Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not far behind. Music style: Country, alt-country, country pop, bluegrass.
Once again, it was hard to pick my favourite songs so I went with my favourite songwriters instead:
On the playlist:
Little Red Wagon (written by Audra Mae)
Dry Town (written by Gillian Welch)
All that’s left (written by Tom and Dixie Hall)
Gravity’s a b**ch (written by Miranda Lambert and Scott Wray)
In 2017, I’m looking forward to dig into the work of Gillian Welch. Her songwriting hits all my buttons. Otherwise, I will just float where the music leads.
What were your favorite finds of 2016? Feel free to link your Spotify Playlists in the comments and let’s chat tunes!
Today marks the launch of my long-awaited website Fearless Family Life.The vagaries of life in a large family tend to stretch every possible timeline beyond recognition but I also suffered from an uncomfortable want of knowing where to take this train.
Over the last year, I have had countless opportunities to reflect on the direction I wanted to move in. At first, I did what most business-minded writers would do and looked at popular parenting blogs. Parenting seems to be as divided as politics, from the more liberal “it’s ok to suck, you have it so hard” to the more conservative “parenting is a war to be won”. In between lies the world of listicles: 10 reasons why your toddler is a jerk and Why good moms start drinking before 9. As an educated woman with both a love for my children and a struggle to be the best person I can be, I found these messages confusing and wholly uninspiring.
The truth is that parenting is hard but we are all stronger than we think. Whether we started our journey from a position of strength or a position of weakness, whatever our challenges are, we can always push ourselves a little farther. Strength builds in increments: fearless family life is about taking the next step on our parenting journey, from wherever we currently are.
In family life, our fears are too often born of our own judgment. We love to read about overcoming mommy-guilt but women are crumbling under the weight of their own expectations. Being fearless is refusing to be guided by our fear of inadequacy. It’s about challenging ourselves without judgment.
Fearless Family Life is my gift of encouragement to you. It’s here to tell you that you can do this. It’s here to share the most important lesson I learned in 20 years of family life: that you love your children better than anyone. Fearless Family Life is about allowing yourself to be guided by love rather than fear, by hope rather than shame. It’s about stepping into the world of possibilities and looking up to where you are going instead of down and around on everyone else’s journey.
Imagine that you and your family are in a boat. You can work together to get somewhere or you can work against each other and sink. Whatever you decide, you’re in this together.
In the pantry, a jar sits on a shelve, lonely and unused. Its bright red colour livens the mess of spices and aromatics standing at attention in a practical array. Bird’s Eye chili peppers, dried to a dusty crisp, artifacts of a summer’s past.
We had planned a large garden, tilled long and narrow mounds on which we planted gourds, lettuces and root vegetables, our knowledge of gardening inversely proportional to our enthusiasm. Seeds of hot peppers thrown on the edge of a row of romaine lettuce testified to our inexperience. They should have been sprouted indoors while the deep brown earth laid dormant under a crust of snow and ice.
Shortly after laying our cornucopia underground, we had seen our own little buds sprouting deep inside the warm comfort of the womb. Twins. Bed rest. Our garden was left to fend for itself as we fought the forces of chaos on the home front. Within a few weeks in July weeds choked everything but the sturdiest squashes, potatoes, and zucchinis. “No wonder that’s what the pioneers ate,” I thought as I laid hatching. The spring rains gorged the edible plants as well as the weeds, the summer sun ripened them. The children picked what could be salvaged and eaten raw and the twin buds rested and grew. Summer lingered into September, then exceptionally into October and the weeds got more luscious. The twin buds matured and bloomed and I was released to the garden just in time to harvest a late crop of red hot chili peppers before fall threw its blanket of frost, smothering weeds and herbs alike. I strung the peppers on a thread with a sewing needle and hung them to dry in a south-facing window, letting the summer rain evaporate from the taunt red flesh.
Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer, the sequence of a year. The peppers adorned our window for a year, long dried but too hot to complement our family’s dishes. Some were rehydrated with boiling water, cooked with oil and garlic and made into chili garlic sauce following Margaret’s authentic Malaysian recipe. We used it by the drop, careful not to breathe deeply while the jar was open.
The house and the garden wrapped their weight around our necks like a boat anchor, dragging our family into a wake of debt and fear. When we decided to sell our house to pay off all our debts the peppers were duly packed into a glass jar, wrapped in packing paper, and moved to our new landing, a relic of the dreams we left behind as we looked up and ahead. The peppers remained untouched as we welcomed our ninth child and moved again when we made our home in the highlands.
Here they live, a vibrant reminder of a summer past when we learned the wisdom of letting things grow as they must.
Today I am reclaiming the concept of Netflix & Chill because someone has to and because there has to be a voice for people watching a period drama while knitting. Edgy. In Canada good TV shows are few and far between. Regional licensing *yawn* agreements — or lack thereof — mean that the Netflix Canada catalogue accounts for about half of what is available in the U.S. I don’t fancy myself a TV critic, even less a TV writer, but I do fancy myself demanding when it comes to how I waste my time. As such, I decided to share with you my favorite series and movies from the very limited selection available on Netflix Canada, starting with my latest
infatuation obsession, Gran Hotel. (The trailer below is in Spanish only but the Netflix offering has subtitles.)
After Downton Abbey was wrapped-up with a bow and a cherry on top — I like my endings happy and this beautiful series was tied-up with the same flawless class that characterized all 6 seasons – I found myself suffering from a severe case of hangover, which may have been due to my unapologetic crush on everything Matthew Goode . I started scouring Netflix for something, anything, to scratch that itch. Netflix kept suggesting “Grand Hotel” but from the cover pictures I could see that the production — including the costumes, writing and verisimilitude — would not be as tightly spun as my beloved Downton. Well, was I ever right in a wrong way!
Cast as the “Spanish Downton Abbey” Gran Hotel — titled “Grand Hotel” on Netflix — is set with the same “upstairs-downstairs” dynamics as Downton Abbey, and that’s about where any possible comparison stops. Where Downton Abbey sought to be a reflection of the era it portrayed, Gran Hotel is using the period as an accessory to its storytelling.
The popular series, which ran from 2011 to 2013 in Spain, is offered by Netflix in 3 seasons totaling 65 episodes of about an hour each (so that’s about 100 hours when you factor-in re-watching all the hottest kissing scenes, *coughs* *loosens collar*). The series is in Castilian (European) Spanish with English subtitles. The subtitles are easy to follow — and entertaining for the third season where typos, missing words and the original Spanish sneak-in, suggesting that the translator got as carried away as I did — and the repetitive nature of the plots, roving and twisting around each other, may even allow you to pick-up a few words of Spanish such as disculpe, lo siento and perdon (excuse me, I’m sorry and pardon me). It turns out that Spaniards apologize as much as Canadians do.
Each one the three seasons is wrapped around a main plot and a few simple subplots. But unlike American series who like their plots and subplots to go on forever and finish abruptly, Gran Hotel’s writers wound and unwound each plot with satisfying regularity. Questions are answered in ways that are not always believable but consistent once you accept to suspend just enough disbelief to enter into this lavish parallel universe. Gran Hotel is light and satisfying entertainment. There are no zombies, no gore, except for some obvious cinematic blood, and your favorite characters will not be killed willy-nilly. If this is how you like your entertainment, read on as I share — without spoilers except for one that should be obvious from the series’ cover picture — my 7 (plus one) favorite things about Gran Hotel.
1. The romance. Here comes the obvious spoiler: the series is spun around the star-crossed romance between Julio (Yon Gonzalez) and Alicia (Amaia Salamanca). Now, I am a very demanding consumer when it comes to fictional romance and let me tell you, this is one of the most contagious TV romance I’ve seen since Colin Firth longingly beheld Jennifer Ehle in the BBC production of Pride & Prejudice. Gonzalez and Salamanca have incredible chemistry, they burn right through the screen. Pacing is the key to a good romance and this romance is perfectly ordered. It always leaves you yearning for more but never frustrated. Their first kiss — deservedly — won TV awards in Spain and each subsequent one is equally deserving, not to mention the hotter stuff. I’d watch the series just for the kissing, seriously. Add two beautiful actors speaking Spanish to each other with the slow-burning emotionality we’ve come to associate with everything Spaniard and you have a love story playing out without a false note over 60 hours.
2. The pacing. One thing that seriously annoys me in American TV entertainment is the tendency to take viewers within a hairsbreadth of a plot resolution, only to be taken on another round of near discoveries, near deaths and missteps. I heard Gran Hotel aptly described in The Protagonist Podcast — listen here, it takes about 10 minutes to get in gear but it does justice to the first 2 episodes and doesn’t contain any spoilers — as “Downton Abbey meets 24” and it’s a true description. Of course — as with 24 — viewers need to overlook how quickly characters get from one place to the next, get changed and read letters. But I was happy to oblige in exchange for not being taken down some obscure plot rabbit-hole.
3.The physicality. Spaniards sure like their face slaps and Gran Hotel actors really know how to put their backs into it. When Julio fights, he fights. At first I found it a little ridiculous, over the top maybe. But I came to appreciate the unrestrained physicality because it carried over to…
4. The men-hugs, men-tears and men generally being very expressive with each other. The friendship between Julio and Andrès is real and meaningful and nothing else would explain how Julio can keep his job by so rarely doing it. My British period drama habit had me used to very restrained displays of manly emotions. The spectrum of British male emoting oscillates between angry, outraged and “I’ll go speak to your father…” Julio and Andrès hug, kiss, confide in each other and cry in each other’s arms, while remaining perfectly attractive — and attracted — to the female kind. Fancy that.
5. The smoking. The series is a 60 hour long shameless and unrestrained cigarette advertisement. The smoking=sex pipeline is not even thinly veiled. To this Canadian viewer this is entertainment anathema and I love the Spanish for their unapologetic want for political correctness.
6. The beauty. This series is visually enchanting. The outdoor scenes were filmed at the historic Palacio de la Magdalena in Santander, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. The men are good looking but the women are stunning in a non-Hollywood kind of way. The make-up was purposely kept to a very natural look, allowing us to truly appreciate the beauty of the ladies. Except for a few shots of bare backs throughout the 3 seasons, everyone keeps their clothes mostly on, even the few sex scenes are tasteful and understated. The beauty and romanticism are wrought through acting only and this is a feat that should be attempted by American entertainment sometimes.
7. The cheese. There is some seriously awesome cheese in Gran Hotel. From oodles of fake blood, to a Laurel & Hardy-like policemen duet, to Julio digging his own grave with his shirt off, fighting with his shirt off, looking for a lost button with his shirt off, to babies being born completely clean and as chubby as 3 month-olds, to weird twists and turns in unlikely plot lines, Gran Hotel has a soap-operatic quality that would be overwhelming if it wasn’t for how honestly it comes by it. Embrace the cheese, don’t fight it.
(Plus one) * A word of warning to my Catholic readers. I know that many Catholics are sick and tired of the perpetually negative portrayal of the Catholic Church in entertainment. The third season of Gran Hotel features a plot line involving an affair with a Catholic priest. If you can’t stand the sight of a Catholic priest behaving badly, you might need to give the Padre Grau story-line a pass. I found it tolerable myself because unlike in American entertainment where he would have been portrayed as a cruel or sick pervert, Padre Grau comes across as just another sinner, which most priests of my knowledge would admit to be. Every single character in Gran Hotel has a morally questionable dimension. Everyone has a secret, everyone hides something, protects someone, makes poor decisions. The Catholic priest is just as sinful as the rest of the cast, no more, no less. Otherwise, Catholic ceremonies and Sacraments are portrayed tastefully and many a thing are left “en las manos de Nuestro Señor” (in the hands of Our Lord).
Et voilà! Gran Hotel is the stuff cult followings are made of and considering how much fun I had looking-up links and information for this post, I am in grave danger of booking a themed tour of Spain’s Mediterranean coastline soon. This is a series that remains true to itself from start to finish and consistently treats its viewership with respect. If you have a taste for pure escapism entertainment, book at night — or 20 — at the Gran Hotel.