Reading away all my stress

My life has been crazy all winter long, ever since the enormous 14-member Syrian refugee family arrived in town at the end of January. Fortunately I share the responsibility of caring for them with five other fabulous women, all of whom have thrown themselves, heart and soul, into the task of resettlement; but still, there are days when I feel completely overwhelmed.

It’s a bit like having 14 extra kids who live in a house on the other side of town. The responsibility of ensuring they do well, attend school, learn English, keep their pantry and fridge stocked, respond to government correspondence, manage their finances and, most of all, figure out how to navigate this strange and foreign place with confidence – all of it weighs heavily on me. I want them to succeed; I want this whole crazy idea of mine to be successful; I want to prove to the many naysayers that this was, and continues to be, the right thing to do.

But there’s a cost that comes with taking on such responsibility. I became obsessed with my new volunteer job. There came a point where I no longer recognized myself in the person who was constantly checking email, organizing volunteer schedules over Facebook late at night, texting colleagues constantly over minute details, making countless phone calls each day. As exciting as the new responsibility was, it also made me stressed out – irritable with my husband, impatient and snappish with my kids, physically exhausted by the end of the day, not to mention emotionally fragile and prone to crying at odd times.

That’s when I realized something had to change. I was shortchanging my family, my actual employer (TreeHugger), and myself while trying too hard to save the world. I’ve had to step back, withdraw somewhat from my involvement with the family while remembering to engage more with my own family, which of course should always be my greatest priority.

My forced withdrawal has, in part, taken the form of nighttime reading. I’m back to my old routine of sitting down on the sofa after the boys are in bed, cup of tea in hand and a good book on my lap. Sometimes I turn on the fireplace. Almost always I leave my iPhone in the kitchen, ringer turned way down, even off if I’m feeling particularly rebellious (or is it righteous?).


Some of the literary gems I’ve recently enjoyed, although I must admit I had to return ‘Wages of Rebellion’ to the library before I got around to reading it, although my husband did and filled me in!

Then I lose myself in other worlds for a few hours, which is always the greatest remedy for reminding oneself that one is only a small fish in a very big pond – that no matter how serious the refugee work I’m doing may seem, it’s only a tiny piece of the puzzle. Non-fiction books throw everything into perspective, while fiction simply provides glorious escape.

What have I been reading?

I loved Juliana Barbassa’s brand new critique of Rio de Janeiro, called “Dancing with the Devil in the City of God.” After spending a month there in December 2014, I felt like I left Rio with more questions than I had when I first arrived, and Barbassa’s literary offering was like an encyclopedia full of fascinating answers and explanations for what makes Rio the insane yet spectacular place it is. I’d recommend it, but then it’s kind of one of those books that only truly has meaning if you know the place it describes. Still, if Brazil intrigues you on any level, read it!

This Is Happy” is Camilla Gibb’s new memoir. Gibb is a Canadian writer who achieved fame for “Sweetness in the Belly,” a novel set in England and Ethiopia, which I’d read last year. I have a thing for memoirs written by modern young women, and “This Is Happy” did not disappoint. Gibb is a lesbian who struggles to get pregnant for a long time, only to have her long-term partner break up with her soon after she does become pregnant. It’s a heartbreaking account that moved me deeply – perhaps because there were similarities with my first pregnancy. I read the book in two days and then stalked Gibb’s Facebook page and Twitter account for weeks later because I couldn’t get her out of my mind. I want to meet her!

Robert Galbraith’s murder mysteries, a.k.a. the marvelous J.K. Rowling. Yes, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, Rowling does have a very intriguing series of mysteries written under a pseudonym. The three books in the series (so far) started out normal, then got progressively more insane, until the last one completely blew my mind… in a bad way. I read it in a mingled state of disbelief and horror, wishing I’d never learned about such evil in the world and feeling selfishly disappointed that these kinds of deviant behavior would even interest Rowling, who seems so… perfect. Ugh. I needed a lengthy shower after that last book, and wished I could scrub my mind too.

more books

Cleaning advice, gory mystery, and Stalin’s Russia…

And yet, Rowling is such a good writer. I will keep reading those darn Galbraith books for as long as she publishes them, holding my mental breath all the while and putting up with her grotesque descriptions of human perversion, just because she spins such a freaking good tale.

Other recent books include “The Golden Son” by Shipi Somaya Gowda, author of the famous Secret Daughter book; it did not disappoint, another light-hearted story spanning the cultural divide between rural India and urban America.

The Silver Star” by Jeanette Walls, writer of “The Glass Castle,” was a delightful thrift-store find that kept me occupied for a weekend; it’s the gripping story of two neglected sisters who face some serious harassment and must figure out how to handle it, while repairing their own relationship.

The list goes on, but that’s enough for now. Any suggestions?

Foray into Vegetarianism

One of my New Year’s resolutions has been to eat less meat. For me, it’s an environmental issue far more than an ethical or health one. I’ve been strongly influenced by recent articles and studies on the global temperature being affected by animal agriculture and documentaries such as Cowspiracy (watch it on Netflix) that explain how reducing and/or eliminating meat is the single most effective thing one can do to decrease one’s carbon footprint. The evidence is there, even if it isn’t what I want to hear.

At first I thought I’d go full-out vegetarian, but then I realized that would be far too much of a shock to my body, my family, my cooking habits, and my insistence on eating whatever is served to me wherever I go. (That last point is something I’ll never be able to let go. I believe too strongly in accepting hospitality graciously at all times, even if it isn’t what I’d choose on my own.) Then there’s the freezer-full of locally raised, grass-fed lamb and pork that I couldn’t ignore. I’ve settled on significant reduction (meat only twice a week) and so far it’s going well.

The family doesn’t mind. Even Jason, my body-building-protein-addict husband, says he hasn’t noticed a difference. I make a point of incorporating protein into every meal – beans, lentils, tofu, sprouted mung beans, paneer, eggs, etc.

Interestingly, the further I move away from meat, the less appealing it is. The impossible happened this morning when I came downstairs, smelled the bacon Jason was cooking for breakfast, and felt repulsed. The kitchen smelled disgustingly animal-like, and I had to open a window to stop from gagging. Bacon!! I used to love bacon!

I’ve gotten several new cookbooks out of the library, which helps immensely when it comes to figuring out dinner. I’d heard a lot about Ottolenghi, the Middle Eastern-inspired cookbook named after a famous restaurant in London, but hadn’t actually used it until recently. Even though it contains meat recipes, there’s a wonderful focus on vegetables that most conventional cookbooks don’t have. I’ve made lots of delicious things, including a delicious version of Egyption kosherie – one of my favourite lentil dishes. I also love Anna Jones’ A Modern Way to Eat.


It’s an ongoing challenge. Every day I face the question of what to make for dinner and it always takes greater planning than simply thawing out a package of sausage or chicken. Slowly but surely, I’m building up a bigger and better repertoire of vegetarian mains. Hopefully it becomes easier over time.

Authoritative Apple Cake

Last week I made a delicious apple cake when a friend came over for tea. My boys each ate a hefty slice, then asked for more. I said no. There was one slice left in the pan, which I was saving for their dad. By the time my friend left, the last slice had disappeared and two guilty-looking boys admitted to disobedience.

While the act itself isn’t such a big deal – it’s just a piece of cake – it’s the principle that bothers me, especially because we’ve been having issues lately with blatant disobedience. The boys are in the “ignoring” stage, where they pretend not to hear their names being called or instructions being given, if they don’t like them.

I would call us authoritative parents, as unpopular and shocking as that may sound. We live in an era where mainstream parenting tends to be soft, easy-going, and liberal; where the children’s rights are considered on par with adults’ and their opinions taken into consideration whenever it comes time to make a family decision. While it works for many parents, it just doesn’t sit right with me.

I love and respect my kids, but I expect them to do what I say – without me having to repeat it over and over again, or beg, plead, cajole, and bargain in order to make it happen. Sometimes I ask what they want for dinner, but every single time I expect them to eat whatever is put in front of them – all of it, not just a few bites – before they get any dessert. And never are they allowed to say “No!” when I tell them to do something.

Needless to say, the cake-eating incident required more than a talk about not listening. It needed a punishment of sorts that could double as restitution for taking something that was not theirs.

The solution? They had to bake me another cake to replace the piece that was eaten.

This did not go over well. They complained and whined, especially when they had to go on a special errand to get ingredients. But it was interesting to witness their transformation over the course of baking. I could hear them getting more and more excited, helping to peel apples and measure flour, grease the pan and whisk the ingredients.

By the time that cake was placed on the table for dessert – and we all got a slice – they were beaming with pride. It was a good parenting moment – a punishment that turned into a wonderful learning opportunity and skill-building project.

apple cake

Here is the recipe for “Easy-As-Pie Apple Cake,” another gem from my new Food52 baking book that I’m loving! (See last post) It really does taste like a pie, which may sound weird, but you’ve got to make it to see for yourself.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 egg
2 cups diced apples
1/2 cup toasted pecans, chopped (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt.

Using an electric mixer, beat the butter, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg until pale in colour and fluffy. Add the egg and beat until smooth. Add the flour mixture and mix again until smooth; the batter will be very thick. Stir in the apples and pecans. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and spread it evenly.

Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean and the top is a nice golden colour.

Let cool slightly before serving. Serve with whipped cream or good vanilla ice cream.

Muffins on a Monday

oatmeal muffins

Christmas was beautiful this year, if a bit too mild for my northern tastes. We hosted the extended family in our new place, which was lovely because we finally have some space for the first time ever. There were no lineups for the bathroom, nor any suitcases strewing the dining room floor. I felt more relaxed, even to the point of enjoying the chaos.

My fabulous brother-in-law gave me a gift certificate to Chapters-Indigo, which anyone who knows me would realize is pretty much the best gift in the universe for me. I quivered with excitement all the way to Barrie, where we stopped at Chapters on our way north to my parents’ house on New Year’s Eve. Jason patiently hung out in the kids’ section while I zoomed in on the cookbook aisle, determined to spend my gift certificate in just the right way.

Talk about stressful! There are so many fabulous and gorgeous cookbooks out there that it’s hard to narrow down the options. Initially I wanted vegetarian, but didn’t see anything that jumped out. If you have any suggestions for a great one, let me know! I walked out with something equally great, however, and am totally thrilled by it – the new Food52 “Baking” book. The photos are stunning and the recipes are perfect; they fit my baking style, preferred ingredients, nothing too finicky, lots of fruit and substance.

Baking book

Obviously, I’ve already put it to work – and I’ll go so far as to say that I’ve discovered the perfect breakfast muffin! I made a batch of three dozen last night, as part of my resolution to be better organized with early morning breakfasts and school lunches, and a large number have already disappeared.

These oatmeal-cherry muffins are made entirely of oats, with a bit of whole-wheat flour. They taste healthy, but they have the slight sweetness and moisture of a more decadent treat. Slathered with almond-cashew butter, they paired wonderfully with my morning latte after a very rough night. (Thanks to the baby who doesn’t want to get back on post-holiday schedule.)

Cranberry, Oatmeal and Flaxseed Muffins

5 cups rolled oats
2 1/3 cups whole wheat flour
1 ½ cups light brown sugar
2/3 cup ground flaxseed or flaxseed meal (I used shredded coconut)
4 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
4 tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups buttermilk (I used a yogurt-milk blend)
1 cup neutral oil, such as coconut oil or vegetable oil
¾ cup water
2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (or sour cherries)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line two standard-sized muffin tins with paper liners.

In a large bowl, stir together the oats, flour, brown sugar, ground flaxseed, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. Add the eggs, buttermilk, oil, and water and mix until just combined. Fold in the cranberries. Spoon the batter into the lined muffin cups, filling each to the top.

Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out clean.

Let cool in the pans for 4 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely before serving.

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.