the problem with perfection

Me, pretty imperfect.

Me, often imperfect.

I love every single blog post on Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen site.  I’ve got a healthy roster of speaking engagements booked this year.  I will have the honour of sharing my stories with Community & Hospital Pharmacists, Emergency Room Physicians, Adapted Physical Education students, and University academics and staff, and I refer to the Presentation Zen wisdom often.

Generally, I speak to share my three key messages from a family perspective in the health and education systems:
1.  How the little things mean a lot to children & families
2.  The birth and life of every child should be celebrated
3.  Expressing gratitude for the kindness and compassion shown by professionals and others who work with our kids

Over the years, I’ve concocted some rules for myself for speaking engagements.  Many of these lessons I’ve learned from Presentation Zen.

Know thy audience well.  Tell stories.  Use anecdotes to illustrate your key messages. Use humour.  Be positive first.  Be constructive about the negative stuff.  Laugh at yourself.  Take deep breaths.  It isn’t about you, stupid (it is about the message you want to leave with the audience).  Create slides with more white space, more pictures, more quotes and less bullet points.   Wear comfortable shoes.  Don’t wear jangly jewelry. Make eye contact.  Smile.  Say thank you.  Most of all: be human.

Part of being human is making mistakes.  I’m not a perfect speaker.  I wave my arms around a lot, and need to have speaking notes in front of me, even if I never look at them.  I don’t memorize stuff or walk around on stage.  I can talk too fast, and I can say ‘um’ too much.  But one thing I always am is passionate.  I think people in the audience relate more to passionate people than scripted robots.

Garr Reynolds talks about the danger of perfection in his blog post, Imperfection, Mistakes and the Courage to Overcome Them. He says that little imperfections don’t get in the way of the message if we take the time to connect with our audiences.  I particularly love the quote from singer Idina Menzel, who says, You can’t get it all right all the time, but 
you can try your best. If you’ve done that, all 
that’s left is to accept your shortcomings and have 
the courage to try to overcome them.

And that applies to not only singing or public speaking, but in real life too.  Go ahead: stand on that platform (in that clinic room, at that school meeting, at that podium, behind the microphone), take a deep breath, and tell your story.  I guarantee if you believe in what you have to say, others will too.  Join me in being joyfully imperfect.

talking about death with kids

starsThis past year, our family has experienced the death of my grandma, and the recent deaths of both my husband’s father, and our family dog Sammy.

In the midst of grief, we had to deliver our own poorly planned, scrambled explanations of death to our youngest son Aaron, who is eleven.  At the best of times, I have a hard time guessing what’s going on in Aaron’s head.  His cognitive disability means that he doesn’t always acknowledge his understanding in ways that we comprehend.  His emotions and attempts to communicate can come out as misdirected behaviour.  The challenge is to be compassionate and patient with him during hard family times.

I do know that I don’t know what happens after someone dies.  We are lacking in organized faith, and this isn’t helpful at these times.  When Aaron’s great-grandma passed away last March, we gave him a simple explanation that Grandma Joan was very old (she was 92) and that her body was broken.  This felt true.  To answer the question of “where did Grandma go?” we leaned upon my mom’s explanation of where her own father went when he died in a coal mining accident when my mom was only four years old.  “Grandma is up in the stars, looking down on us,” we told Aaron.  Explaining about her ashes was more difficult.  We steered clear of discussing cremation, and vaguely said that Grandma’s body turned into ashes.  I was relieved Aaron didn’t ask further questions.

We stuck with the same explanation when his Grandpa Barry died earlier this month. My father-in-law’s death was more difficult to explain, because he wasn’t nearly as old as Aaron’s great grandma.  “Grandpa’s heart stopped working,” we said, rather inadequately.  We said he’s up in the stars too.  Aaron’s main concern was that his own dad was upset, and he seemed to take solace in giving out hugs to try to make him feel better.  We shared tender memories of visiting Grandpa Barry’s house (he had a pool!), eating hearty barbecued meals out on the back patio, and Aaron & his grandpa mowing the expansive lawn on grandpa’s ride-on tractor.

I can tell Aaron isn’t sure what to do with his emotions.  MY GRANDPA DIED he sometimes yells.  I haven’t been that successful in explaining that in North America, we don’t run around yelling about death.

Thankfully, yesterday we had an appointment with his behaviour psychologist.  She told us to use developmentally appropriate language for Aaron, so telling him about hearts & bodies that broke was fine.  She told us that yelling out is a totally normal way to handle tough emotions.  She encouraged us to keep sharing memories, and to answer any questions as honestly as we could when they came up.  We printed off photos of Aaron with Grandpa Barry and sent them to school in case he wanted to talk to his teachers.

But I think Aaron is onto us and our weak white lies.  The fact is, we don’t really know where people go after they die.  Their spirits are simply gone from our world.  “But the stars are science,” Aaron said last night, suspiciously, after we talked to him about people being in the stars.  In lieu of a better, more spiritual stories, that’s all our family has.  (For families with stronger faith than ours, take comfort that you have more robust explanations to draw upon).

Then finally, Sammy, our 11 year old chocolate lab. I don’t know why I’ve been crying more about a dog than I did about actual people, but I have.  We had to take Sam, who was riddled with cancer and arthritis, to the veterinarian on Tuesday to be euthanized.   I lied to Aaron about that (or as I like to say, I withheld information).  Explaining that you take loved ones to the doctor and then they die wouldn’t bode well for us the next time Aaron has to go to the pediatrician.  So we just said that Sam died, too, and that he’s up in heaven in the stars, fetching tennis balls for Grandma Joan and Grandpa Barry.   That’s the best I’ve got, and I really hope that it is true.

Please go tell the people (and dogs) that you love that you love them.  We are all only here for a limited time in this beautiful, messed up world.

For more about talking about death with kids, visit:
Talking to Children About Death
National Institute of Health
And for a different perspective, read this great piece about living in the moment by Ellen Frankel: Life, Death and Karma 


you can do this

Slide04Eleven years ago, I had a memorable phone conversation with my friend Maureen. I was eight months pregnant, and I had called her for advice. For my third, and last baby, I was determined to purposely go the no medication route, but I was really scared.

My previous birthing experiences went like this: I had an epidural with my first baby, and then no medication with my second. Forceps pulled out my eldest boy because I couldn’t feel to push properly and I’ve never gotten over the guilt for that. That image of those bruises from the forceps on his little face is forever etched in my memory. My second labour was medication free only because I had a super fast labour with my girl and there was no time for intervention (not because I had necessarily intended it to be that way). I remember feeling very afraid.  My labour was induced, so the contractions were terrifying and felt like a bulldozer coming at me, knocking me down over and over again.

I shared my intention to forgo meds if I possibly could to Maureen, who had experienced four natural childbirths. I looked up to her as my birthing mama guru. She was strong as hell.  She said one thing to me that I will never forget: You Can Do This. Those words snapped me to attention, and to this day, I still murmur them to myself whenever I feel fear lurking inside my chest.

I carefully wrote You Can Do This on an index card, and during my long labour with Aaron I yelled at my husband to show me the words. He dutifully held up the card while I breathed my way through my contractions.

You Can Do This turned my labour upside down. Instead of fighting each contraction, and thinking no, no, no, I welcomed the pain because it was evidence that my body was working hard. Each contraction brought me closer to meeting my baby. When I was near the end, close to transition, I distinctly remember that Mike and I were giggling together and shouting: The baby is coming! The baby is coming! It was the strangest thing. Instead of fear, I felt joy embedded in those waves of pain.

Aaron popped out after a few minutes of pushing, and the best feeling in the world is having that fresh baby placed on your chest right after birth. Just thinking of that now, 11 years later, makes me tingle.

Afterwards, the nurse told me, with tears in her eyes, that she had never seen a couple so happy and excited to have a baby. You can do this. And I did.

I want to acknowledge that everybody does not have a positive birth experience, and that not having medication is merely a choice – and certainly not the only way to have a baby. I know that my experience was not only due to determination – luck and good fortune came into play too.

Because I had survived and even thrived through the pain, I suddenly acquired this electric feeling like I could do anything. It was a glimpse into a thrilling world that meek shy me had never seen before.

This place of strength came in very handy two weeks later when we found out that our baby had Down syndrome. My resiliency from that labour spilled over into my life with my son, especially during those early dark days of grief. I am so very grateful that his birth was uneventful (if yours was not, I can promise you that you will make your way). My own experience helped put me on a positive path in our new journey, and along with the love of a good man and supportive mom-friends, it is one of the things that still helps sustain me today.

Maureen’s brilliant philosophy does not only apply to birthing a baby. If you take one thing away from my writing, please know this: You can do this. No matter what it is, you can.  And I believe that you will, too.

the less-invisible-mom

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 9.45.20 PMMy favourite (and most supportive) editor, Louise Kinross, at Holland Bloorview’s Bloom blog, asked me for a piece that gave an update about The Invisible Mom.  I wrote Looking Up over the holidays, and it was published on Friday.

The comments have been kind, but to be truthful, when I wrote the Invisible Mom a year and a half ago, I was MAD ALL THE TIME and not in very good shape.  This kind of permanent outrage bled into other parts of my life, and I was in a constant simmering rage, waiting passively for the world to become more tolerant and accepting of my young son.  The stark reality was that change wasn’t happening on its own.

This kind of anger is exhausting.  I was fearful of becoming a mean, bitter mom.  I cannot tell you how much better I feel because I examined my own role in Aaron’s exclusion.  I found something I could actually do about it – help start a Family Inclusion Group at the school and finally connect with other moms – and this is a such big relief.  Of note:  I have not done this on my own.  There are five of us ‘founders’ – each bringing our own energy and diverse perspectives to the group.  We also partnered with the school administration – one Assistant Principal in particular has been collaborative and responsive to us  Also, our school trustee is a champion of inclusion and attended our first meeting – how great is that?

I read this super quote somewhere a long time ago.  It is from a dad who had a child with special needs:

When my son was born, I wanted him to change so he could be accepted in the world.  Then I wanted the world to change so they would accept him.  Now I know that it is ME that has to change.

Isn’t that lovely?  Words to live by.  Let’s keep chipping away at change in this messed up, beautiful world.  Let’s also borrow from the Serenity Prayer, and accept what we cannot change, and have the courage to change the things we can.  Let’s do it together.  xo.


my love of film

_AF_6405.CR2I love the whole movie experience.  While good television on HBO and Netflix threatened to shut down movie theatres, I’m thankful this hasn’t happened.  (Movie attendance has fallen slightly, but revenue is up, unfortunately thanks to increased ticket prices).

I love everything about going to a film:  the anticipation, buying popcorn, sitting in the theatre as the lights dim.  I suspend all thoughts in my scrambled head, and sit wide-eyed, waiting to be passively transported to another place.  Going to a movie is easier than reading a book:  you just have to show up.  There’s something about that wide screen that television will never be able to replicate.

There’s so much goodness to take in during a movie:  the dialogue, the setting, the cinematography, the soundtrack, the acting, the costumes.  And of course the story.  As Allan Palmer says, “movies are just the ultimate medium – to this point – for humans to experience stories.”  I’m a sucker for a good story.

My favourite (story and) movie in 2014 was Boyhood.  This year, I also loved Wild, The Lego Movie, Nightcrawler, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.  This is a jumble of movies – the only thing they have in common is that I saw myself somehow reflected in the story.

Today I saw my first movie of the new year.   I spent an hour in the blizzard on the road – each way – to see Birdman at a remote theatre in the north end.   I was hooked when the opening credits featured Raymond Carver’s Late Fragment, which I am guilty of quoting (a lot).

My other favourite (unattributed) quote was taped to the mirror in Michael Keaton’s dressing room – it said:

A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing

And in honour of these words, I won’t bother pretending I’m a critic and provide any kind of amateur review of Birdman. My 18 year old daughter proclaimed it ‘too artsy’ and it was indeed about the world of celebrities and actors.   But this film transported me back to my university days when I hung out with the theatre students, and a short stint dating an actor when I was a single mom.  Plus, Edward Norton (pictured above, in his underwear) starred in one of my favourite films of all time – 25th Hour.

I’ll just say, for me, Birdman made me reflect on my own quest for external validation in the world of writing, and ponder what I need to tell myself as a speaker so I can summon up the courage to stand on stage before an audience.  It also offered me two hours in a cosy theatre, away from real life, where I could disappear and not think about injustices, or school advocacy, or bad weather, or crappy roads, or what I was going to make for dinner.  It gave me a break from me.

This year, I’m looking forward to seeing The Imitation Game, Selma, Still Alice, and Insurgent – and sneaking out to the movies any chance I get.


keep banging on your drum

My husband is obsessed with the Craig Ferguson show (or, as he fondly calls him, Craigy Fergy).  Ferguson’s last show was on December 19, and Mike has insisted on showing the opening segment to anybody who walked into our house over the past two weeks.

I never fully understood Craig Ferguson’s humour in the same way Mike did – they had their gender, age and UK-ness in common.  I did, however, appreciate his free-form style – he was like the jazzman in the world of scripted late night talk show hosts.  Mad props to him for being true to himself.  This is what makes him an artist.

I finally succumbed to Mike’s pressure and watched the clip of the last show today.  Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my husband well up, and now I know why.  The sequence featured a whole raft of celebrities banging on their drums, including an amusing Kristen Bell patting her own very pregnant belly.  But oh my, the lyrics to the song Bang Your Drum.

If you’ve ever struggled for acceptance, stepped up when nobody else would, wanted to make change in the world, been labelled a troublemaker, been told to shut up, experienced rejection over & over, been outspoken about issues nobody wanted to talk about, had nasty Internet comments, been ignored or ridiculed, or tried to create something that will last forever, THIS IS YOUR SONG.

So make that art, speak up at that meeting, step up to the podium, bang out that blog post, grab that microphone and DO NOT GIVE UP.  This is the only way the world will ever ever change.

Keep banging on
Banging on your drum
Keep banging on
And your day will come
Keep banging on
Banging on your drum
and never heed
-awesome lyrics by Dead Man Fall

Dedicated to my Mike, who has always supported me and encouraged me to bang on my own drum.  And my three kids, who are banging on their very own drums.

ella frances, age 4

IMG_5921Ella is a highly emotional and volatile little person! Can hold her own – strong-willed and passionate. Creative – can draw and draw for hours. Loves singing and dancing and being silly. Excels at printing – she will read early. Knows who she likes and who she doesn’t.  

Big screamer, very dramatic, particularly when her brother bugs her. Very warm and affectionate. Does not run with the crowd or a best friend – goes about her business, doing what she wants to do. Likes to follow me around, ‘hanging out with you mama.’ A beautiful girl.


I found this little blurb about Ella written in a journal that I kept when I was a single mom in 2001.  That’s when I started writing in earnest, to try to make sense of my own messed-up world.  I am so grateful that I wrote these words down, to remember what my little girl was like at this point in time.


Fourteen years later, I’m stunned how similar Ella is now to when she was four.  I wonder if our values and character have settled into place by this young age.

Now Ella is 18, and although she is reserved, she is still (quietly) passionate.  She was an introvert when she was four, and she’s still one now.  I think she’s very creative – she doesn’t believe so, but she can out-doodle anybody, and has an eye for art and beautiful things.  She loves all sorts of music – pop, hip hop, blue grass, and Johnny Cash. She did used to follow me around when she was little, and that was when we started baking together.  Now she works as a baker’s assistant at a local bakery.  She’s oblivious to peer pressure, and has always gone her own way – choosing to take a year off before school, finding a little garage suite to move into with her boyfriend, adopting a sweet little kitten.  I’d add two other words to describe her now:  she’s resilient, and she’s very funny, too – these are qualities that have evolved as she’s grown up.

Here’s yet another good reason to keep writing and telling your stories:  to remember. Zooming back in time has reminded me of how that sweet little girl has blossomed into a beautiful young lady.

Today, one of Ella’s co-workers gave her a handmade painting that says:  In a gentle way, you can change the world.  That’s the perfect sentiment for my girl fourteen years ago at age 4, and now at age 18.  She’s gentle, but she’s also a force – watch out world, here she comes.  xo.