This is how YOU can help the Syrian refugee crisis

A Syrian refugee child cries at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria

I thought that, once my middle child started school this year, I’d have a lot more free time. How wrong I was. I didn’t take into consideration that a distant war would explode onto the global scene in such a way that I couldn’t not take action of some kind. Now I find myself deeply immersed in a world that I knew nothing about only a few weeks ago – the world of refugee sponsorship.

In the same week that little Alan Kurdi’s heartbreaking photo hit front pages all around the world (and made my heart and stomach give a sickening lurch whenever I thought of my own three-year-old boy), I received an email from an organization with which I’ve worked in the past called Mennonite Central Committee. This email called on Canadian citizens to sponsor Syrian refugees to our communities, and explained in detail how it was possible to do so.

Suddenly, I realized this was something that I could do to help the crisis. The Saugeen Shores Refugee Fund was born – a group made up of concerned local citizens from my community – and we are on our way to fundraising $20,000 in order to sponsor a Syrian family of six. It’s a joint sponsorship with the federal government, which will pay 40-50% of the cost to support the family for their first 12 months in Canada. (More details available on our website.)

Starting this Refugee Fund has been a fascinating lesson in humanity so far. I live in a fairly small, rural town, and a shocking number of people are very opposed to the idea of inviting foreigners, particularly Muslims, into our community. It makes me sad to see such xenophobic attitudes, but it makes me more determined than ever to stretch my children’s knowledge of the world well beyond the confines and safety of home. Through a combination of travel and friendships with people from other cultures, I hope they will grow up realizing there is far less to fear than many people think.

Fielding negative reactions from people is exhausting, but then I think of this paragraph that I read in a blog post written by an Anglican priest in St. Catharines, ON:

“If you think that it is too expensive, too complicated, too anything, then look at the picture of three year old Aylan Kurdi again, and think about writing a letter to his parents explaining all of the reasons why there is no room in Canada for them, why they don’t belong here, how we are too busy, and the life of their son was too expensive for us, why there isn’t a faster, better system for Canada to respond to the refugee crisis in the world—be my guest.”

A family hasn’t even arrived in Saugeen Shores yet, and I’m already exhausted by the effort, the hours, the thinking, the scheming, the speech-writing, the rehearsing, the asking, and the hoping, not to mention the disappointments, the unforeseen complications, the slow pace, the negativity, the doubt, the steep learning curve, and the countless unknown factors.

But it’s worth it. I am more energized and driven than I’ve been for a long time, jumping out of bed at 5:30 to get my daily post written for TreeHugger, so I can spend the rest of the day working to get this family here as quickly as possible. I have a newfound purpose and am determined to accomplish it. It’s an incredible feeling.

It’s hard not to hear the stories coming out of Syria and feel helpless, but here is a wonderful and worthwhile way in which you CAN help. Please consider donating to our community fund. We need to raise $20,000 and then a Syrian family could arrive within only 1 to 4 months. Isn’t that amazing?

You can donate online right here and will receive a tax receipt for any donations over $20. (Our funds are being held in trust by a registered charity.)

Thank you for your generosity.

Good books for summer

It’s been a really long time since I’ve done a book review for this blog, though it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading! My list for 2015 so far has been long and varied, so I’ll select a few good ones, and hopefully get back into my regular monthly reviews after this. If you’ve read any of these, please share your thoughts in the comments below; I’d love to hear what you think.

“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson


I heard Kate Atkinson interviewed on CBC radio a few months ago and was spellbound by the interview, even though I had no idea who she was. With her lovely British accent, her sense of humour, and her interesting anecdotes, I immediately felt drawn to her.

But I forgot to write down her name, and eventually forgot altogether, until my friend Kelly (who’s pretty much a professional book-reader and whose recommendations I take very seriously) told me about this book. When I flipped to the back cover and recognized the name “Jackson Brodie” (Atkinson’s famous character), I realized I’d finally found her.

“Life After Life” is incredible. It’s the mind-bending story of a young woman who continually relives her life, although each time takes her down a different fork in the road – until she finally gets it ‘right.’ It’s set in England and spans from 1910 until the mid-60s, although most of it takes place during World War II.

I think it’s the best novel I’ve read in a while, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, “A God in Ruins.”

“Sweetness in the Belly” by Camilla Gibb

sweetness in the belly

This novel is set mostly in Ethiopia, which is a country that has fascinated me for a long time. (If I could go anywhere in Africa, that’s where I’d go.) It tells the story of an English girl who is orphaned and raised in North Africa as a devout Muslim; she eventually makes her way to the city of Harar, where she lives in a poverty-stricken family and teaches Quran to young children. Then the civil war hits in the mid-1970s and she is forced to flee to England, a place that is part of her heritage, yet hardly home.

I found it particularly gripping because Ethiopia is so rarely depicted in literature. To get such a close-up view of the customs, the language, the Muslim-Christian tensions, the male-female relationships, the fierce patriotism (i.e. There never was an Ethiopian diaspora until the war because nobody would ever think of leaving), made it a wonderful read – reminiscent of “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese, but a little less complex.

“The Jazz Palace” by Mary Morris

the jazz palace

As a musician, I love books about music, and this one is full of it – bursting with glorious descriptions of jazz, which I love. Set in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century, it tells the story of a young boy who can’t seem to live up to his Jewish family’s career expectations for him because all he wants to do is play music. (Do you blame him, especially since he’s a virtuosic jazz pianist?)

The novel sinks into true historical facts, the challenges of immigrant life in a rough city, the escape that jazz offered for many restless souls, and the racism and violence that exist.

“In his solo he soared. He flew above the city, hovering on his dark wings. He brought out the saddest tune he’d ever found. It was the sound of empty beds and eating alone, children locked in a room and widows with nowhere to go. Somebody said that on the eighth day God created loneliness. So Napoleon must have been close to God because he was making it come out of his horn.”

“A Spool of Blue Thread” by Anne Tyler

a spool cover

I had never read anything by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tyler before, but I started it with high hopes after listening to the librarian rave about her. It was a good but very strange book, perhaps because I was expecting something different. After opening with what seemed to be a major scene, it was never mentioned in the book again, nor resolved in any way.

The whole book proceeded like this – constantly setting up for something big that would make me think, “Oh, this must be the point of the book, the actual plot” – but inevitably, it would just keep going on without resolution or further discussion. I finished it in confusion, feeling well acquainted with the family that are the main characters, but still not understanding why the book had been written.

Is this common for Tyler’s style? Is she a sort of stream-of-consciousness writer? It was a curious experience, but not one that I particularly enjoyed, to be honest. I like it when a book has a defined purpose.

Jam Season

On Friday, Jason and I were feeling ambitious. We packed up the kids and headed to the fruit farm. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but quickly became far more difficult and chaotic than I’d anticipated. (Surely I should have figured this out by now, but it never ceases to catch me by surprise.)

My happy little fruit pickers

My happy little fruit pickers

The baby, who was asleep when we arrived, began wailing in his car seat as soon as I’d crouched down in the strawberry patch and begun picking. I stopped what I was doing to pack him into the carrier, but he didn’t like that either. I felt a mixture of embarrassment and pity for all the other early-morning pickers in the field who likely hoped for a quiet, efficient morning, yet were being subjected to my hollering 11-week-old son.

Then the older two boys decided that strawberry picking wasn’t for them. They began hurling berries at each other, only to be expelled from the field by their father. They climbed into the car and began honking, but only briefly, because then their father’s threats were sufficient to smarten them up – at least temporarily. They chased each other with a thorny raspberry branch, which ended in bloody scratches, more wails, and two angry shouting parents.

To make matters worse, there were hardly any strawberries in the patch, and the ones there were red on top, white on the bottom. I felt slight panic as I imagined the lack of strawberry jam on my basement shelves for the winter ahead, but that wouldn’t make the berries appear, so I moved on to raspberries. Pickings were still slim, but I managed to get one full bowl.

During that period of time, three-year-old L. needed to make two separate trips to the bathroom (located in a distant barn) and got shocked twice by the electric fence surrounding the pigpen. First time was out of curiosity; second was when he tapped the fence with a flower he’d picked for the pigs. Needless to say, he didn’t want to hang out at the pigpen after that.

Cherries salvaged the trip. Jason and I picked frantically, filling multiple bowls with sweet and sour cherries, while the boys went off to play with the farm kids. We found them tearing around the yard in a golf cart, the 10-year-old driving while the rest of the kids clung onto L. to keep him from falling out. They described the gory details of watching the farm cat eat a dead mouse on the porch. I think they had the most fun they’ve had in a long time.

The cherry pitter was out of commission, which meant that I’ve spent most of the weekend squeezing out sour cherry pits; I’m practically doing it in my sleep. But now there are at least 20 jars of jam in the basement in various combinations of raspberry, strawberry, cherry, and rhubarb, as well as a huge cherry pie in the fridge, so I’m feeling satisfied.

Sour cherries galore -- all pitted by hand!

Sour cherries galore — all pitted by hand!

Weekends like this, however, make me respect pioneer women more than ever. Picking and preserving fruit is, for me, something fun; it’s not a necessity, which means that if the combination of crazy kids and poor harvest had resulted in slim pickings on Friday, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world. But imagine living in a time when all summer was spent preparing for winter, and the survival of one’s family depended on such work. I can’t imagine the stress.

Here’s a delicious recipe for Mixed Cherry Conserve:

1 lemon
3/4 cup water
4 cups sour cherries, pitted
4 cups sweet (Bing) cherries, pitted
4 cups granulated sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

Scrub lemon; cut off ends. Slice very thinly, then chop coarsely, discarding any seeds. In small saucepan, bring lemon and water to boil; reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes or until rind is very tender (almost mushy).

In a large Dutch oven, put cherries. Add 1/2 cup water and cook for 10 minutes or until softened. Add sugar, lemon juice, and lemon mixture. Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring frequently, for 40 minutes.

Remove from heat; skim off foam. Pour into hot sterilized half-pint / 250 mL canning jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Seal with prepared sterilized discs and bands. Process in boiling water canner for 10 minutes. (I usually skip this last step, since jars are hot and jam is boiling, and I let them seal up on their own. I’ve never had any issues.) If any jar doesn’t seal, put it in the fridge and use within 1 month.

Makes about 6 cups

Recipe from The Complete Canadian Living Cookbook

Count Your Blessings

Reading bedtime stories with Grandma

Reading bedtime stories with Grandma

There are some conversations in life that make you stop instantly. They make you view everything in a different light, often putting things into perspective at just the right moment. That happened to me on Thursday.

It was a long week, one of those weeks when every day has two or three different activities or events that we had to attend – school barbecue, nursery school and senior kindergarten graduations, a retirement party, two birthday parties, appointments. Even though I love all these things, it’s a bit overwhelming when it’s all happening at once. From morning until night, I felt like I was scrambling, always behind schedule.

To make matters worse, the boys got into an early morning fight on Thursday. By early morning, I mean they were full-on wrestling and shrieking at 6:10 a.m. while I nursed the wide-eyed baby, despite our howling at them to keep it down. This isn’t unusual, except that L. decided to stand up for himself and expel A. from his bottom bunk bed by poking him in the eye. There was a whole lot of screaming and wailing, which set the stage for the rest of the morning. Nobody was happy, the baby wouldn’t go down for his nap, A. was walking around with an ice pack on his eye, L. was sobbing for no apparent reason, I was late getting breakfast on the table and feeling very irritable.

There was a tiny voice in my head saying, “I kind of wish I didn’t have children this morning.” I just wanted to be somewhere else, away from the wails and complaints and never-ending demands, worrying only about myself for a change.

A. went off to school, insisting that his eye was fine, and I took the other two kids to run errands in Owen Sound, forty minutes away from home. While there, I got a call from the school, suggesting I pick up Alex and get his eye checked out, since it was getting worse. I rushed to the grocery store to finish my shopping, feeling frustrated and tired and being very snappish with poor L.

Then something made me freeze in my tracks. I was in the checkout line, and the cashier commented on my boys’ lovely red hair. “I had all boys, redheads, too,” she said.

“How many boys do you have?” I asked.

She paused before replying, “I had three, but I lost two of them. Now I just have the one, and he’s the love of my life, the little miracle I wasn’t even supposed to have. He’s nine.”

I suddenly felt shamed – by the grief and longing for her children that she must feel on a daily basis, by the joy on her face when she spoke of her one little boy, and by the rather unloving, impatient way in which I’d been treating my own kids that day.

Then I got in the car and heard an interview on CBC about the Syrian refugee crisis – four million refugees seeking asylum elsewhere, with many millions internally displaced. It was yet another thing that put my situation into perspective. I have three healthy, beautiful children. I have a clean, warm home in a safe town. I don’t worry about war infringing on our lives, about lack of food or chain-link fences locking my family and me into a refugee camp from which we cannot escape. I have no right to complain about anything.

I picked up A. from school, feeling much calmer than before. The optometrist informed us that his cornea had a big scratch on it, but that it’s minor and would likely heal within 24 hours. Sure enough, it did.

A friend texted me last week, saying, “You can start the day over as many times as you want,” and that’s what I’m trying to do – focus on the bigger picture, remind myself of my many blessings, and realize that a rough start doesn’t mean a bad day.

The Happiest Days of My Life

These are two little guys I spend my days hanging out with. I couldn't ask for better company!

These are two little guys I spend my days hanging out with. I couldn’t ask for better company!

My littlest baby just turned 8 weeks old on Thursday. He is a delightfully chubby and solid little guy, with a halo of fuzzy orange hair, gigantic jowls that hang below his tiny lips, and rolls of pudge on his arms and legs.

He nurses like it’s going out of style, and sleeps deeply at night. Already he’s dropped down to a single feeding at 4 a.m., which makes my job pretty easy. So, as you can see, he’s angelic in all the ways that matter most.

But as soon as he wakes me up at 6 a.m. on the dot, every single morning, he earns his nickname of Maniac Bug, taken from Richard Scarry’s classic Cars and Trucks and Things that Go (a huge favourite in this boy-centric household). Baby M. does not like napping during the day.

I had forgotten that babies are so extraordinarily challenging. I’ve read and re-read The Baby Whisperer, desperately trying to figure out the magic solution – I, a fairly experienced sleep trainer who has no issue with enforcing consistency and routine – and yet, all my attempts continually fail with him. Yesterday, for instance, he slept a grand total of 20 minutes in the 12 hours between waking and going to bed!

He’s stubborn, just like his oldest brother, and determined to dig in his heels and fight with me already, at this tiny age of barely two months. I can’t help but admire his tenacity, while dreading it at the same time.

There are days when I fear he dislikes life in general. I get the sense that he’s disgruntled by the fact that he was forced to exit the warm coziness of my womb. He was born with a deep crease between his eyebrows, a perpetual frown that I think is adorable, but that made his oldest brother ask, upon seeing him for the very first time, “Why is he so mad?”

Despite the challenges, we are thriving, and living in the midst of the happiest days of my life. I have to pinch myself daily to believe it’s true – that I have this gorgeous little baby and two energetic bigger boys, who are so full of life and colour and hilarity.

The proud biggest brother who can't do enough for his baby

The proud biggest brother who can’t do enough for his baby

People ask me how it’s going. They expect to hear that it’s total chaos, bordering on out-of-control, and are always surprised when I say it’s going really well. In fact, I think having a third is much easier than the second. That might not be the case for everyone, but for me, the older two entertain themselves and are sufficiently independent that I’m able to give more attention to the baby. It’s almost like having the first, except minus the boredom, the profound silence when sleeping, the lack of stimulating conversation, and the terror at not knowing what to do, ever!

That being said, I’m still reminded on a daily basis of how every baby is different. There are plenty of moments when I feel overwhelmed by his unique little preferences and under-qualified for the job of being his mom; but at least I know from experience that it’s normal to feel that way, that things will stabilize eventually, and that time will fly by.

For now, I’m determined to enjoy every moment, to revel in the beautiful busyness of my life, to imprint the peaceful nursing sessions in my mind forever, and to show little M. that life is fabulous (no perma-frown needed!).