return to the land of the living

lifeisbeautiful copy When I was 33 years old, I took up smoking. This was really stupid. Who starts smoking at age 33 as the mother of two young children?

My marriage had just broken up. I was living in Norway, where everybody smokes furiously. Smoking filled up that deep dark hole that had been shot in the middle of my heart.

Here’s the thing about addiction: once it starts, it feels good. I loved smoking. It allowed me to escape my single mom life for a few minutes on that Bergen balcony, and it perversely felt physically good.

Thankfully, ten months later, I started dating a really healthy guy (my current husband) and I was terrified he’d find out that I was a secret smoker. I brushed my teeth constantly and took a lot of fragrant showers. The weekend we went away camping together, I forced myself to quit cold turkey, forever. I was a bitchy, agitated mess, and I’m shocked that we stayed together. He’s a good man.

I will now confess that I have the same addiction to my iPhone. Here’s how I calculate I spent my time on this Earth:
-60% of time looking at Facebook, Twitter or Instagram on my phone.
-20% of my time rummaging around for my phone – digging in my purse, feeling in my pockets, patting my butt.
-20% of my time frantically searching for my temporarily misplaced phone.

I fell into some very bad habits. My phone was plugged in beside me in bed just in case a wayward child texted me. I checked my Instagram feed just before I went to sleep. I scrolled through my social media feeds to wake up in the morning. I glanced at my screen at traffic lights. I stopped thumbing through magazines at the grocery store check out, and instead waited with my head down, reading Facebook posts.

There was a thrill in seeing a new notification on Facebook or Twitter. I became deeply sucked into the zing that went along with that validation. After my article Far from my Tree was published in the New York Times, my Twitter feed went wild. My heart beating loudly, I took a screen shot of the dozens of notifications, knowing that I’d soon be back down from my high to one or two paltry mentions or retweets a day.

I knew I had a problem, but felt helpless in the face of this technology addiction.

I listened to Carl Honore at a conference, where he shared about the danger of technology and our endless need to get more, more, more. I read meditation books to help centre myself and be in the moment. I could zone in the moment for only a moment, before I was glancing down at my phone, which had become my sweaty third hand.

“Put boundaries on technology” said the experts. I’d hide my phone and then seek it out after 30 minutes, compelled to scroll again. Moderation wasn’t working for me.

Now, I know myself well enough that I never installed my email onto my phone. Remember in the olden days, when you’d rush home eagerly to see if anybody left a message on your answering machine? Well, checking my email was like that. Since I didn’t have every single bit of incoming contact on my mobile device, I would run upstairs and check the email on my laptop when I got home to see if any ‘good’ emails came in. (Remember when all emails were good? Now most of my emails are bad: spam, problems, people wanting me to do things for them). Because of the inconvenience of my laptop, which lived on the third floor of my house, I soon was able to keep the lid closed for hours at a time.

On my phone, it was a different matter. I carried it around with me like my little baby. (Be honest. How many times have you texted while in the bathroom?). Facebook was becoming a serious problem. I censored my feed carefully, but still felt like a loser when I read everybody’s shined up Christmas letter version of their lives. Extravagant vacations, robust social lives, perfect children, statistics on their recent marathons – the reasons for my envy were many.

Twitter pissed me off less, but reading those 140 characters was so addictive, and even better than Facebook – because I followed over 300 people, there was constantly an update on it. I could check it, put down my phone, and then two minutes later, five tweets appeared. For an addict, this was awesome.

I have a small feed on Instagram, and a little more control. But my Facebook envy bled into Instagram. Sitting in my car in the middle of frozen winter looking at beach photos did not help with my morale one bit.

Then I read Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain by Daniel J. Levitin. He says you cannot daydream while you are checking your iPhone. They require different parts of your brain. When I was groping for my phone at 6 am, my brain was immediately clicking into organizing mode. Any creative function clicked off.

Well, I’m a writer. I have committed to not having a Busy Life so that my mind has time to knock around aimlessly and I can think of ideas and reflect upon concepts. I stopped overscheduling myself a year ago, and this has given me the luxury of daydreaming. Except when I’m checking my phone.

Last week, I deleted all my social media apps off my phone. I deactivated my Facebook account. All I can do is text or phone. Twitter and email wait for me on my laptop upstairs. Otherwise, when I’m driving, or standing in line, or waiting for my son to finish playing video games at the movie theatre, I am actually present. I’m looking around (this is especially helpful when I’m driving a motor vehicle). I watch the kids giggle as they play pinball.  I join Aaron in a car race game, and we speed through the streets of Paris in sports cars.  I eavesdrop on interesting conversations at restaurants.  I smile at the elderly lady in the grocery line. I chat with the cashier.

Discarding the distractions on my phone has lifted my head up. I am no longer obliged to have my phone glued to my hand. Sometimes (gasp), I even leave my phone at home. For me, this is revolutionary.  It has been a week.  Can this almost-cold turkey with technology last?  Check back with me in a month and send me a direct message on Facebook – hopefully I won’t respond.

For right now, I’m back in the moment, and I’m paying attention. I’m weaning myself off the addiction of the validation of the likes, comments and notifications. I’ve rejoined the land of the living.

the summer list

IMG_5079Since I own my own company, I can take time off whenever I want.  I love this autonomy, although I do not get paid for vacation, which hurts the next month when my paltry invoice payments come in.  I’m not complaining.  For our family’s life, this flexibility is worth it.

Every spring, I start vibrating about arranging summer childcare for Aaron.  For my clients do not halt work over July and August, and I need to be available to them.  Each April, I lie awake at night, contemplating our options:  regular babysitter, day camp (segregated where I don’t need to hire an aide, or inclusive where I do), lean on older siblings, take conference calls in the bathroom on mute with kids screaming in the background.  None of these options are appealing for the entire eight weeks that is summer vacation.

Two years ago, Aaron had a really challenging year in Grade 3.  So much so that we sold our house and moved in order to get him into a more welcoming school setting.  I will admit to running away that year on the school break.  We packed up our vehicle, and took off for a month long road trip to Idaho, Washington State and British Columbia.  We stayed at a lake cottage, a winery, a yurt and a water buffalo farm.  It was really awesome to have no schedule and all that time together as a little family.  We took Aaron’s lead on activities, and splashed around at beaches and in pools, went to drive-in movies, and ate a lot of burritos.

When we returned, with the month remaining, we started a Summer List.  This helped me feel like we had a sense of purpose to the long summer days at home.  Aaron would help create the list, and each day we would pick one thing a day that we wanted to do.  

Over the past two summers, we’ve tinkered with the Summer List.  This year, Aaron is 11.  He is now very specific about what he wants to do.  Fort Edmonton?  NO.  Corn Maze?  NO.  Instead he replaces these with an infinite number of movies, mini-golfing, go-karting, meeting Dad downtown for a hot dog lunch, KFC picnic in the park, LRT train ride and Telus World of Science. Fair enough.  It is his Summer List, not mine.  (Mine would look something like:  Walk.  Bookstore.  Movies.  Pedicure.  Drink wine with friends. Date with husband. Repeat).  This is important:  we only pick one thing off the Summer List a day.  Sometimes we do nothing at all.  We have opted out of doing the busy thing.

We supplemented that with a week at a truly inclusive summer camp (thank you, University of Alberta), where the staff was trained to work with all types of kids.  His eldest sister hung out with him while I attended the occasional work meeting.  This, coupled with a month in British Columbia lying on a floatie on a lake, has filled up the Summer of 2014.

There are ten days left in summer.  Aaron is downstairs, slowly eating his Cheerios and nectarines and watching Spiderman on his iPad.  We are not missing the morning school rush, which is a complex process that includes pulling him out of bed in the morning, setting the timer, having a contest to see who gets dressed first, combined with bribes, threats and pleading to get him out the door in time.

I’ll have lots of time over our cold harsh winter to catch up on work while Aaron is at school.  Having two adult children reminds me that this time with Aaron is not forever.  One day, he, too will move out and leave our nest.   As the great George Harrison once said:  All there is ever, is the now. Each day is a precious gift.  Let’s govern ourselves accordingly.

put that supermom cape away


Every few months, I need a break from the advocating, lobbying, educating, motivating and inspiring.  A wise woman once said to me:  you know, sometimes you can fold up your Supermom cape and put it away.

This is brilliant advice for two reasons.

One, all ‘special needs parents’ need to rest from the heavy work of changing the world.

And two, let me not view myself in such high regard that I think I’m the only one who is capable of changing the world.  Many many others are chipping away at this important work – this is not my sole responsibility.  It is humbling to regularly remember that it isn’t all about me.

The break from being a ‘special needs mom’ is not a break from my ‘child with special needs.’  It is a break from society, systems and the small minded.

So I fold up my cape, and pack up my kids and board a flight to the west coast.

We disembark in the land of the lapping ocean and shadowy mountains. Our generous extended family fetes and feeds us.  We eat fish and chips at the wharf and meander around the bobbing boats at the marina.  Aaron chooses what yacht he’s going to buy for his girlfriend.  We amble through a hidden community garden on the abandoned train tracks.  We carefully examine every single exhibit at Science World and admire the views from the top of a mountain.  We gobble up corned beef hash at a breakfast joint with my daughter and her boyfriend.

We walk laps around the ferry, challenge each other to racing games at the video arcade and hold our hats on the windy deck.

My mom and dad take us to secret island places.  We visit the barking sea lions and chat with the goats at Coombs.  We shriek when we touch the sea cucumbers at the marine field station.  We turn over rocks to find scattering crabs.  We use binoculars to spot thousands of gulls feasting on herring eggs with Pappa Neil at the estuary.

We read chapter books at bedtime, and lounge in bed for a long time before we get up.  We eat pho and Nanaimo bars and lay on the floor while our one year old cousin and niece scampers over us.

All this is done on Aaron slow time, with no heed to clocks or schedules or meetings or the damn Internet.

Let’s give each other permission to fold up that Supermom cape and hide it in the back of the closet.  Sometimes we need to relax into these small moments with our kids, and leave the changing the world business to someone else.


humans of new york wisdom

As usual, Humans of New York offers up profound insight, just by walking up to people in the streets of New York, snapping their photo, and asking them for their thoughts.  The wisdom resides in the people who are closest to the lived experience.  (A sentiment stolen from Ann Goldlbatt last month, which I have been referring to a lot).

This gentleman simply and eloquently sums up what it feels like to be a freelancer.


picture us, too


photo by Stephen Wreakes

This gorgeous photo is of a Nurse Practitioner and my son Aaron – it was used by a pediatric nursing textbook.  I love two things about this picture:

1.  It shows a lovely, positive connection between a health professional and a ‘patient’.
2.  It shows a child with a visible disability.

I find that so many images associated with children’s hospitals, and foundations for children’s hospitals are of white, ‘typical’ looking kids.  That really bugs me.  These are not the children sitting in their clinic waiting rooms!  There are many kids of ethnic backgrounds, and lots of kids who are in wheelchairs, who have syndromes, who have cerebral palsy…these are the kids who frequent children’s hospitals.

Why are children chosen who look like classic models?  Or if the child does have a visible disability, are the photos styled carefully so the disability is minimized or hidden.  Is the face of children’s hospitals a child who looks supposedly healthy?  Is that the promise of pediatric health care – that after accessing services and care there, all kids will walk out ‘healthy’?  It doesn’t work that way for all families.  Many of us have children with disabilities that just aren’t curable (nor do we necessarily want our kids cured – but that’s another blog post).

Photographers like Rick Guidotti are challenging the antiquated notion of who is beautiful.  I love this.  As the Bloom blog asks:  Who decides what is beautiful?

Kudos to organizations like the editors of the Canadian Essentials of Pediatric Nursing and recently, the College of Registered Dental Hygienists of Alberta – for proudly showing diverse images of the real patients and families they serve.


Sometimes I go to this church.  I always say it isn’t really a church.  It is somewhere people go to feel welcome and exchange ideas.   I like that it makes me think, even on a Sunday morning.  It clears the cobwebs out of my head.

Like this poem, which was rewritten and posted on the wall of Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Calcutta.

The Paradoxical Commandments
by Dr. Kent M. Keith

People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

© Copyright Kent M. Keith 1968, renewed 2001

photo essay

Here is a beautiful photo essay by Philip Toledano.  It is called Days with My Father, and it is pictures and words about Philip’s dad, who is 98 years old.  Philip is a New York based photographer.

Days with my Father is a lovely (but sad) piece about being a child of a parent who is becoming elderly.  It beautifully honours Philip’s dad in the most authentic and true way.  Read it and weep, especially if you are over 40, because I know you have aging parents/grandparents.