Thursday, December 23, 2010


We are home for Christmas. These past few days have been so full.

Full of friends and their warm openness to receive us back. Hugs and squeezes. Talking fast to get it all in.

Full of cuddles with new babies. Quiet moments to study the intricacies of their faces - the wrinkles on their pinky-finger knuckles, and the shape of the their noses.

Full of the generosity of living in another's house and having a place to call home.

Full of spicy flavours of favorite curries and peanut sauces. Schmaunt Kuchen and chocolate and peppermint.

Full of the awareness of how empty we are without the offering...

The Cradle

For us who have only known approximate fathers
and mothers manque, this child is a surprise:
a sudden coming true of all we hoped
might happen. Hoarded hopes fed by prophecies,
old sermons and song fragments, now cry
coo and gurgle in the cradle, a babbling
proto-language which as soon as it gets
a tongue (and we, of course, grow open ears)

will say the big nouns: joy, glory, peace;
and live the best verbs: love, forgive, save.

Along with the swaddling clothes the words are washed
of every soiling sentiment, scrubbed clean of
all failed promises, then hung in the world's
backyard dazzling white, billowing gospel.

Eugene H. Peterson

Peace to you all tonight.
Be full.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

How we Roll (at Christmas)

I love tradition.

I love doing the same things, eating the same food, and listening to the same music to mark an event or a celebration.

Christmas is like that for me. Not so much the event of Christmas itself, but the time leading up to it.

I knew that Christmas would be different this year.... we're in a different house, we don't have all of our Christmas "things" with us, we're not surrounded with all of the same people and (HALLELUJAH) there's no snow on the ground. I knew the girls would miss some of those things, and so I was determined to do what I could to make things as much the same leading up to Christmas as it's always been.

We always put up our tree on the first Sunday of Advent. That day is not to be messed with. Any sooner is just wrong, and any later doesn't leave enough time to enjoy it. The girl's were devastated that Mike and I had chosen to leave our tree in the storage room in Winnipeg. I believe Hannah was crying about this back in September. Yes, she has a flair for the dramatic. I had wanted to do a "Jesse Tree" this year to mark the advent season and do something different, but with us not being able to finish it because we'd be in Winnipeg before Christmas, I didn't think it made sense. SO, off to find a cheap tree we went. And lo and behold, good old Home Depot came through with a $19.99 6 foot (skinny and sparse) tree that we surprised the girls with that Sunday. They could not have been happier.

All of our Christmas decorations are safe and sound in their Rubbermaid bin back in our storage room as well. Of course we couldn't have a bare tree! So we got crafty and made some decorations this year. We've added more every few days. We've even strung popcorn for the first time (a new tradition?) and hung that on the tree as well. The stringing of the popcorn kind of fits with our current obsession with all things "Little House on the Prairie". Throw down an old sheet and some white cloth your new ski helmets were wrapped in, and baby, you've got yourself a tree skirt!

Back to traditions and that Sunday night.... a few of our other traditions are held to quite rigidly by all the females in the house. For example, the first carol that can be played in our household each year is the Barenaked Ladies' rendition of "Jingle Bells". It's gotta be played first, and it's gotta be played loud. Them's the rules. Listen to it and you'll know why.

And the food. Tradition has it that we always have a little feast of appetizers after we put up the tree. I like to mix those up a little each year, but there are a few non-negotiables. One "must" is Winkler Meats garlic sausage for Hannah. Wouldn't you know, that the Safeway on East Hastings just happens to carry it! (You can take the girl out of Menno-land, but you can't take the Menno out of the girl.) Cheese Ball and crackers, dill pickles, spinach dip, spring rolls, Christmas oranges, candy canes, cranberry Christmas punch, AND (this is key) one box of Turtles and one box of Toffifee must be unveiled and cracked open and consumed that night. That tradition as been going on since Mike and I set up our tree the first year we were married nearly 15 years ago. We crack open the boxes, then sparingly consume to make them last right until Christmas.

Sunday night we completed one of our other favorite traditions. The decorating of the Gingerbread boys and girls. This is something the girls look forward to with great excitement every year. Mike joins in the fun and painstakingly decorates his cookies like only an engineer can do!

"Nellie Olson" by Hannah

"Miss Xmas" by Mike

"The Grinch" by Sasha

And so the tree has been trimmed, the cookies baked, and the presents wrapped. The girls and I fly out to that frozen arctic land full of friends and family and new babies to snuggle. Mike will join us on the 23rd. We'll be waking up at a strange house on Christmas morning (we're house-sitting for friend's of ours), and our presents for each other will wait until we get back "home" in January. As much as I love tradition, different has an appeal of its' own.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Grinch

Last Wednesday night was a big one for Hannah and Ellie. It was the night that their school's Christmas Production was taking place. Amazingly, it was indeed a Christmas production - "The Grinch who Stole Christmas".

The girls were so excited to be part of a production which incorporated dance, music, and acting into the evening. You don't even want to know how many times I heard the songs from "The Grinch" over the past many weeks. Enough times that I could sing them for memory for you right now if you asked me, but please don't ask.

Hannah decided to audition for a part as a narrator and was thrilled to get one. This meant that not only did she get the speaking lines, she got to be a part of the cast and as such was able to dance and perform in two extra numbers. There were after school and lunch-hour rehearsals and memorizing lines. All enjoyed tremendously.

Ellie's class performed one number as penguins. The pinnacle for Ellie was being the student selected to stomp her foot loudly at the end to signal the rest of her classmates to look up and take their bow. A role full of responsibility for sure! I mean if the stomps were late, or worse yet, didn't happen - everything could fall apart! She practiced her stomps and executed them with grace and perfection.

Hannah refused to tell me what her "costume" was so that I would be surprised. All she needed were her black jazz shoes and tights. Well va va va voom, when she came on stage she was decked out in a sparkly little animal print tunic and was sparkling with excitement from head to toe.

There is a lot of character in small schools. Everyone does their part to make something like this happen - parents, staff, and community members. At Linden Christian, the girl's school in Winnipeg, we were able to watch the girls in huge, amazing concerts. But because of the "machine" behind them, they were flawless - which is a good thing. However, I enjoy the grittiness of a small school production. It feels organic and real - kind of like the joy you feel when receiving a hand-made card from a child instead of a perfectly factory created one.

The performances were all fabulous - one foot stomping penguin and one narrator stood out in particular. There were a few moments during the night when I shed a few tears and belly laughed really loud. All of those moments made it for me and they all had one thing in common - kids with exceptional learning needs were front and center on the stage.

In the grade four class, there is a girl named K. who has significant cognitive issues and gets through her days with a lot of help. She is a huge part of the heart of the school. All of the kids know her and feel affection towards her. Her class was doing a song called "The Frosty Hand Jive", and K. was holding the letter "Y" of the word Frosty to hold up at just the right moment. There were a few things that struck me about K and her class. I loved that the dance teacher gave K. a part with responsibility. I loved to see how her classmates took her under their wings on stage and gently and respectfully got her where she was supposed to be. I loved the absolute look of pride and delight on K's face as she danced her heart out. I loved that she wasn't sitting on the sidelines watching. It was the highlight of my night.

If you've read our blog before, you know about Nikki and what a significant part of Ellie's class she is. She was smiling from ear to ear and dancing alongside all of her friends as well. It was perfect. In fact, after the show, Ellie's first comment to me was, "Did you see Nikki? Wasn't she cute?" There is such a sense of nurture and love in that class.

The best part of the night for me was watching A. - a boy in the grade 6/7 class. A also has cognitive learning issues. But those issues meant nothing to him on Wednesday night. He sang louder, smiled bigger, and danced harder than anyone else on stage. And when I say sang louder, I mean louder. Really loud. Not usually with the correct pitch, but what he lacked in musicality he made up for in volume. And it was awesome.

What I've come to love so much about the girl's school is that there is a place for everyone.

How many of those kids that night would never have a chance to take dance lessons at a studio, wear a great costume, have the spotlight shine on their face, be on stage? Maybe it's a learning issue, a financial situation, a language barrier, or parents that just can't. But for that night, they were the ones on stage singing and dancing. Status meant nothing. And the stage was open for all.

A parent told me the next day that she'd been speaking to the school custodian, Jeff over the lunch hour. He mentioned that he and most of the staff members had been at the school until one o'clock in the morning cleaning up and preparing for the next day of learning. He said, "I do it because I love those kids". They know they are loved by their custodian. He knows them by name and was cheering and clapping with everyone else on the night of their show.

What a school. What a community. I'm thankful that this is where my girls have their place.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Paradise on Grouse Mountain

Back in April, when the girls came out to Vancouver during spring break to check things out here, I took Hannah skiing at Grouse Mountain. We had so much fun, I bought season passes ("Y2Play") for our entire family.

The ski season started a couple of weeks ago (right after Karla broke her elbow), and we've been skiing a couple of times already. We all went together the first time, even Karla. Of course, she didn't ski at all, but she stood at the top of "Paradise", the bunny hill, with Sasha or Ellie while I skied with each of them in turn.

Here's the gondola coming in to dock before loading us up.

Sasha didn't look too sure about the gondola ride even though (because?) she had done it twice before.

No, those aren't Sasha's poles she's got there. She carried my poles while I carried her skiis and my own. We were told that kids her age learn better without poles.

The "skyride" up the mountain only took about 5 minutes to whisk us up the mountain side, and it was jam-packed, even though we were there relatively early. We were stuck in the middle of about 40 people, so I didn't get any pictures on the way up.

Here's Sasha at the top of the mountain ready to go. I forgot she was still holding my poles, so it looks like the person that fitted her up did a ridiculously bad job.

Sasha didn't fall down the whole day skiing down the hill, and this was only her second time skiing. And the first time we went, she probably went down the hill 3 or 4 times, max.

Check out this video of Sasha skiing "Paradise" run. She's awesome!

But Sasha's favourite part of skiing is still the chair-lift ride up to the top of the hill. "So relaxing". Yeah, until we have to get off . . . with Hannah on one side of us, and some stranger on the other side. Try doing that without falling. Hey, I said she didn't fall down while "skiing down the hill". She fell down plenty of times getting off that dang chairlift.

Hannah enjoyed herself too. She really seems to have taken to skiing.

Hannah and Sasha posed at the top of "Paradise" run with "The Peak" in the background. If you look closely, you can see the big wind turbine at the top.

We only stayed until mid-afternoon, so the gondola was much emptier on the ride back down. The girls even got window seats . . .

. . . with a great view of Stanley Park and English Bay.

It is so great to be able to drive for 15 or 20 minutes, go skiing in perfect conditions, and then come back down to the balmy Vancouver weather, leaving the snow and cold up on the mountain where it belongs.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I woke up this Saturday morning thinking about the mountains that we can sometimes see - me on my way to the bus stop, the girls on their way to school. We haven't seen them much lately. They've been shrouded in low-lying cloud cover for a few weeks now - we're well into the rainy season.

But this morning, only a few sparse, wispy clouds accented an otherwise clear blue sky. Just like back home on the prairies, when it's sunny in winter here, it can be colder than normal. And it was colder than normal this morning - around -2 deg Celsius - when I decided to go for a walk to capture the beauty of the mountains, newly frosted by the early winter snowfall and lit up by the early morning sunshine.

I ended up at the girls' school playground, the forever green grass frosted white, so that each step through the field crunched.

Their majestic peaks, hidden for days,
shrouded in grey robes,
now crowned in brilliant white,
bright and glorious,
inspiring and awesome.

The morning sun reveals their towering glory once again,
rising high above the city below,
inspiring the least among the peasants,
to wax poetic.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

For Art's Sake

Our girl's go to a phenomenal school here in North Burnaby. Confederation Park Elementary School is small - only 240 students in grades Kindergarten to grade seven. Five years ago, the Burnaby School District was ready to shut the school down as enrollment had dropped to just over 90 students. The administrator at the time had the brilliant idea of turning the school into a "school of the arts" - and that is just what she did.

Now, five years later, the school is bursting at the seams and has four portable classrooms on the property. There is a waiting list to get in. Most of the enthusiasm for the school is centered around the idea that its philosophy of "education through the arts" is valuable and important. The school is home to a visual art studio, a dance studio, well-equipped music room, and staff who (for the most part) are passionate about incorporating the arts into the curriculum.

By all accounts, you would call this transformation a success story. Sadly, the Burnaby School District does not fund the arts at Confederation Park to a greater extent than any other schools in the district. If the school wants/needs more funds for music, costumes, art supplies, etc., it's up to the school itself to make it happen.

The Parent Advisory Council at the school is incredibly active and imaginative. It's become a tradition to host a Community Art Show each November in the school gym. Each student creates art pieces that are displayed and sold to guests at the show. (Yes, this means you are paying for your kid's art, but the money goes to assist them in creating more art!) The gym is transformed into a winter wonderland by parent volunteers. Bartenders are on hand to mix martinis and pour wine and beer. There is a band playing to create some atmosphere while you wander around and admire the amazing work of the students. Local artists are invited to display and sell their work as a way to support the arts in the community. It's a fabulous event that takes hours of volunteer hours to put on.

Most importantly, the event builds community.

Before the show, we went out to an amazing Indian restaurant called Bombay Bhel with a few other couples from the school. We shared and sampled and indulged until we were stuffed. The butter chicken made Mike and me particularly happy.

Once at the show, we were able to wander about to find our girl's creations. Hannah made a beautiful starfish which she formed out of clay - then fired and painted.

Sasha's class went a little more simple. There was a painted snowflake with a picture of her in the center. Who wouldn't pay good money for that smile!

Ellie's class prepared two projects - an artist's palette clock and a hand-painted glass Christmas ornament. We couldn't let either of those go!

The gym was a place of creativity, laughter, excitement and joy.
The martinis helped with the "joy" part.

It was a great evening with nearly $10,000 dollars raised to go back to the school's art program. Money well spent!