Archives for November 2011

Letter to my 16-year-old Self

More than a year ago, I saw a flurry of blog posts all across the internet, in which people wrote letters to their 16-year-old selves. All kinds of people joined in. I did not. I don’t know why. I guess I wasn’t feeling it at the time. But now it’s winter, and 2011 is almost over, and I’m feeling pensive. And pensive, as it turns out, is just the right sort of mood for writing letters to yourself at 16. Here I go!

Year-end dance in grade 10

Letter to Amber at Sixteen

Dear Amber,

If I could actually send you a letter, the smart thing to do would be to fill it with helpful information about the outcome of certain sporting events and how the stock market will perform. You know, like Biff Tannen in Back to the Future II. Since that is not the point of this exercise, though, I will refrain. Instead, I will attempt to impart wisdom, as I reflect on my life and yours and how much I’ve learned in the 19 years that have passed since I was in your shoes.

This will be a difficult year for you. A lot of things happen that leave you reeling. The important thing to remember, as you face sadness and adversity, is that you are resilient. All of these things that seem hard now will make you strong, and help you to grow up. One day – and that day isn’t far off – you will even look back on this year as a time when you found yourself, and let go of the things that are holding you back. It’s natural that this kind of transition brings upheaval. Just understand what it is, and it will be easier to navigate.

On the upside, I’ve seen the photos, and you’re looking good. So please, for the love of all that’s holy, stop spending so much time agonizing in front of a mirror. When you’re in my shoes you’ll only be able to dream of looking like you do. Stop fretting over it and appreciate it.

Me on the Pyramid of the Sun

In fact, there are a lot of things that you can stop fretting over. High school is not easy, and I won’t tell you that it is. But this time will be over before you know it. So rather than worrying about every little thing, try to understand that in the end, what you’ll miss is the fun stuff. Do more fun stuff. Don’t worry so much about what other people will think, or whether you’ll get in trouble, or how it will all turn out. The truth is, this time is for figuring out who you are. Play with it a little.

Play is something that most 16-year-olds have abandoned. Don’t. Spend more time doing things you like, rather than things you think are expected of you. Write for fun. You love to write. Don’t stop writing. By all means, take the math and science classes. Show up at school every day. Do your homework. But learn how to cut loose, too. You don’t have to spend your youth trying to be serious. Seriousness is overrated. Dreams are not.

You won’t leave every part of your life now behind, as you graduate and move away. You’re forging lifelong relationships here, so don’t flippantly discount someone’s feelings or be heedlessly rude. No matter how any interaction turns out in life, it pays to be kind. You never know when you’re going to need a hand, and sometimes it’s surprising who shows up (and who doesn’t) in your hour of need. Remember that, and learn to think a little before you speak.

The biggest message I want to leave you with isn’t a piece of advice, it’s an affirmation: you are enough. You always have been. You have all the tools that you need to do what you need to do. You’re smart, you’re resourceful, and you have people who love you. Things are going to turn out all right for you. You may not know what’s coming next, but you can trust yourself to deal with it when it comes. If you know that, then you can take whatever the next 19 years have to give you.

XOXO
Amber, just a little older and wiser

What wisdom would you share with your 16-year-old self?

PS – Every month I do a monthly review of things I learned. Some are serious, some are funny, and all are hard-won. I will be running my November review on Saturday, December 3. I’d love it if you played along. Write a post on or before December 3 and come back here to include it in my link-up!

Gluten-Free Cooking for the Lazy: My Tips

I do not consider myself a foodie or a gourmet. I like to eat food, I like to cook food, but the reality is that I’m not that creative. I follow basic recipes, I prepare mostly simple meals, and I eat the same foods often. In fact, in university, my roommates often commented on just how much pasta I ate. I would make a big batch and then have the leftovers for days. It saved me from having to cook as much, and the repetition didn’t bother me at all. Plus, pasta is yummy.

When my husband Jon went gluten-free to help his irritable bowel syndrome (it worked) and I followed after discovering that I feel better when I don’t eat gluten, it challenged my cooking habits. If I couldn’t eat pasta, bread or baked goods, how would I survive? There was a whole lot of melodrama for about 15 minutes, before I discovered that eating gluten-free really isn’t all that hard. Here are my tips for lazy gluten-free cooking.

Tips for Gluten-Free Cooking

  1. Stick to basics you already eat. Corn, rice and potatoes are all gluten-free. So is oatmeal, if you buy the right kind. Meat, dairy, beans, veggies and fruit are gluten-free, as well. This means you can eat mashed potatoes, nachos, steak, scrambled eggs, homemade granola and a whole lot of Asian cuisine. Eating foods that are naturally gluten-free is cheaper, and most of the time it’s more satisfying, because it doesn’t feel as if it’s missing anything.
  2. Keep quick meals and snacks on hand. I am currently buying a lot of hummus, cheese and tortilla chips. I also always have rice cakes and peanut butter on hand for a quick and easy snack. If you’re changing your diet in a big way, make it easy on yourself. You don’t want to have to spend a long time preparing every bite you put in your mouth – sometimes you just want a quick fix.
  3. Most baked goods are fine without gluten. I mix up an all-purpose gluten-free flour blend using Gluten Free Girl’s instructions. This works for most of the foods I make – chocolate chip cookies, banana bread, pancakes, waffles and pizza dough. I do use xantham or guar gum in most baking, because I find that it makes the finished product less crumbly, but otherwise I substitute my flour blend for regular flour and most people don’t even notice the difference.
  4. Accept gluten-free bread for what it is. Yeast breads are the one thing that really can’t be replicated without gluten. Gluten-free bread is expensive, small, and disappointing at first. If you’re expecting regular bread, well, it’s just not regular bread. I avoided it altogether for the first two months. Now I’ve gone long enough without regular bread that I’ll eat it in a grilled cheese sandwich or something similar and I enjoy it, because I’m not expecting it to be something it isn’t.
  5. Choose your pasta wisely. I’ve had good luck with corn pasta, and Tinkyada rice pasta. Other rice pastas I’ve tried were really mushy on the outside and hard and chewy on the inside. Look for recommendations, follow the directions exactly, and choose recipes with flavourful sauces. This pasta doesn’t stand on its own in the same way that wheat pasta does, so consider it a vehicle for other flavours. My gluten-free lasagna was great, though, thanks for asking.
  6. Surf gluten-free recipes. I’m one of those people who bookmarks recipes I plan to cook someday, even though I know that someday rarely comes. By searching out gluten-free recipes I’m reinforcing that there are lots of things that I really can still eat, and picking up useful tips. Plus, really, who wouldn’t love homemade oreos? There’s so much great food that doesn’t need gluten – explore it!
  7. Don’t go overboard buying gluten-free food. On my first post-wheat shopping trip I wanted to put every single gluten-free item in my cart. Cookies, crackers, pasta, bagels, waffles, donuts, you name it. Never mind that I hadn’t eat a regular bagel in years, I was going to buy the gluten-free kind. I also bought at least a half-dozen different kinds of gluten-free flour. This is expensive (those bagels were something like $6 for a four pack), and you’ll end up with a bunch of stuff you won’t finish. It’s exciting to find food you can actually eat when you give up wheat, but don’t let it go to your head.
  8. Find some gluten-free restaurant options. Sometimes you just want to order pizza, or pick up some takeout. Being gluten-free limits your options. So do a little legwork, and find a few local restaurants that will work. Indian and Thai food is often gluten-free. So is most sushi, provided that you use gluten-free soy sauce. Also, lots of pizza places offer a gluten-free version now. If you track them down, you’ll be able to take a night off from cooking now and then when you’re just not up to it.

It can take a little while to get used to the idea that your diet has changed. I think it’s important to allow yourself the space to mourn a little, while keeping in mind what you’re doing and why. After not too long you’ll adjust to your new reality, and you won’t feel as if you’re missing anything. After all, there’s still far more food that you can eat, than food that you can’t eat.

Have you ever given up gluten – or dairy or meat or some other staple food? How did you cope with the change? I’d love to hear your tips, too!

Wonder

Why does a mother drag herself out of bed before 7:00am on a Saturday, and rush her groggy six-year-old through breakfast? Why does she pry her protesting three-year-old off of herself as she grabs her older child’s hand and runs out the door? The easy answer would be that she was invited to a media event at the local aquarium, which started before the doors opened to the public. The mother in question didn’t feel up to wrangling both children single-handedly, so she took the one who was least likely to dart off.

Origami jellyfish at the aquarium

All of this is true. But that’s only the superficial reason. After all, being invited to an event and actually attending the event are not the same thing. So why does one drive through the early-morning rain, while listening to an endless string of questions from the back seat, when one would really rather be sleeping? Why does a parent put on 3D glasses and stand in line for cookies they can’t eat (because of the gluten)? Why does a mother make an origami jellyfish, or spend far longer than she would like examining every single thing in the gift shop? You could say she’s doing it for her child, and that’s true, but it still wouldn’t uncover the true rationale.

Feeding the electric eel

I accepted the invitation to see Luminescence at the Vancouver Aquarium. I watched a 16-minute version of The Polar Express and learned that electric eels aren’t actually eels, they’re fish. I watched lights bounce off of paper jellyfish and added milk to my daughter’s hot chocolate until it was the perfect temperature. And I did all of this because, for just a moment, I could see pure wonder on my child’s face. And when I did, I felt that wonder myself. I lived vicariously through my daughter’s joy, and it reminded me of something inside myself.

Watching sea turtles

Moments like these are the real reason we have children. They’re the real reason we put up with the mess and the inconvenience. They’re the real reason that we go out of our way to accept invitations to events that we know our kids will enjoy, even if they require us to get out of bed early and endure a little bit of wetness. And they’re the real reason we tell stories about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. These moments are what make it all worthwhile, and we’re forever chasing them. Those moments of wonder, when we see the world through new eyes.

What lengths have you gone to, to see the wonder in your child’s eyes?

Podcast: Christine Pilkington of Crisp Media

Christine Pilkington is the CEO of Crisp Media, which runs Entrepreneur Mom Now and City Mom Now. I happen to be the Content Manager for VancouverMom.ca, one of the sites under the City Mom Now umbrella. So, you can be forgiven for thinking that I was sucking up just a little when I asked to interview her. But I promise that really, it wasn’t about that. I asked to speak with Christine because in just over two years she went from publishing her first blog post on VancouverMom.ca to launching sites all across Canada, with plans to expand across North America. She took a very small initial investment, and built a company and a career for herself.

Christine Pilkington Podcast Crisp Media City Mom Now Entrepreneur Mom Now VancouverMom.caMoms start blogging for a variety of different reasons. Some of us are seeking community, some of us like to write, and some of us want to document our children’s early years. But many of us are also hoping that we can somehow turn a part-time hobby into something more. We look at people like Dooce and think that maybe we can make money online, doing something we enjoy, without ever having to leave the house. It’s an appealing thought, you have to admit. The truth, however, is that very few of us actually make a real career out of blogging. Since Christine has done it, I wanted to hear how she made it happen. When she sends me work-related emails, this is something we just don’t discuss, so I wanted the chance to pick her brain in a more informal setting.

Christine talked about how she created Crisp Media, and how she’s expanding her reach. She’s optimistic, and she believes that it really is possible to make a living online. You have to be creative, though, and it helps to have a solid understanding of what you’re doing and why. Listening to her speak, you definitely get the feeling that Christine knows what she’s doing and why. But more than that, you can also hear that in the process she’s creating something with a vision and a purpose. Her online magazines are designed to connect and empower moms, helping them to enjoy the place they live or make a go of starting their business. In the process, they come to see that underneath the yoga pants and the peanut butter fingerprints, there’s still a very cool person who can do some very cool stuff. That’s a powerful thing, and it’s what drew me to work for her.

Listen to our conversation on the Strocel.com podcast here:

To continue in the blogging theme, next week I’ll be sharing an interview with Jeanette Miller, the mom behind Limelite PR. You often hear bloggers talk about what PR folks are doing wrong. Jeanette will share her perspective from the other side of that relationship. She’ll also explain exactly what PR is, anyway, because I think there’s a lot of confusion around that. Subscribe to the Strocel.com podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a minute!

On Thankfulness, Joy and the Holidays

It’s Thursday, so I’m Crafting my Life! I invite you to join in the fun. If you would like to share a story from your own journey, please drop me a line. If you’d like to find out more about my online class on living with intention and my upcoming e-book, visit craftingmylife.com.

Today, my American friends are celebrating Thanksgiving. I am not – in Canada we celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, which just happens to coincide with Columbus Day in the US. What this means is that I’ve been there, done that, and eaten the turkey almost six weeks ago, and today I have to work. But since so many of you are feasting and making merry, it seemed fitting to mention it.

It also seemed fitting to mention Thanksgiving, because I believe that practicing gratitude plays a very big role in living a life of intention and authenticity. Over on the Crafting my Life blog I explored some of the benefits of giving thanks on Canadian Thanksgiving. Apparently, research tells us that people who cultivate a spirit of thankfulness have better mental and physical health, improved inter-personal relationships and increased optimism. This leads to greater happiness – apparently people are 25% happier when they’re “in gratitude” than when they’re not.

universal thank you note
Image credit: woodleywonderworks on Flickr

Being thankful doesn’t, in and of itself, bring your dreams to fruition. But when you’re happy and optimistic, it’s a lot easier to see the possibilities in your life. At least, I feel that way. When I’m discouraged and down, I find it much harder to motivate myself. When I’m in a good place and I feel upbeat and hopeful, I’m more productive. I’m also far more likely to make mental connections or come up with brilliant ideas when I’m in a positive space. I think most people find that.

Ironically, holidays like Thanksgiving are often the worst times to bring gratitude into our lives. We’re so often rushing around, attending to little details, that we don’t really have time to stop and think about what we’re thankful for. When you’re cooking a full turkey dinner for 13 and doing some frantic last-minute cleaning so that you can keep up appearances with your mother-in-law, you’re probably not “in gratitude”. At the same time, I think that the message of togetherness and thankfulness and celebration can be an excellent kicking-off point to gratitude. It just may have to wait until the next morning when the guests have cleared out and you have a moment to think.

Hug or headlock? You decide.

From this point on, we’re going to be hurtling headlong through the holiday season. This means that we’re also rapidly approaching the end of the year, which is traditionally a time when we re-evaluate our lives and think about what we’d like to do in the year ahead. Last year I declared that I wanted to keep the holidays simple and special. I’ll be doing that again this year. In the process, I want to take full advantage of the spirit of goodwill and hope and gratitude that infuses the holiday season when I’m not stressed out and frantic. I want to take the time to enjoy what’s happening around me, think about what I’ve done in the past year, and dream about what I want to do in the year ahead.

As you celebrate Thanksgiving (or just work, like me) today, why not think about what you can do to bring a little bit of gratitude and joy into your holiday season? How can you make this season enjoyable, and optimistic, and satisfying? We all spend so much time making the holidays fun for our kids, and that’s great, but I think we deserve to have fun, too. In the process, we’ll make the season a little brighter for everyone, because we won’t be toxic and cranky. When you take the time to cultivate gratitude – and joy – you’re not just giving yourself a gift, you’re giving everyone a holiday gift. And this one will always be just the right size.

How will you cultivate a spirit of thankfulness, at Thanksgiving and beyond? And how will you make the holiday season manageable and even enjoyable for yourself? I’d love to hear!

Little Ms. Sparkle Ears

I got my ears pierced for the first time when I was four years old. I have a vague memory of being in the hair salon getting it done, but it’s all very hazy. What I do remember clearly is crying in preschooler agony each and every time my mother cleaned my ears in the days that followed. Before I had made it through the period when I was allowed to remove my earrings, one of them came out somehow at a family holiday party. We searched for it in vain. My mother tried to put one of her earrings in my ear, but I sobbed hysterically and she eventually gave up the ghost. She took out my other earring and the holes closed over shortly.

My sister, eager to show me up, had her ears pierced just one year after I did, when she was still three years old. She did not sob hysterically every time my mother cleaned her ears. She did not lose an earring at a holiday party. Her ears never closed over, not even once. She is such a piercing star, in fact, that she went on to have her bellybutton and her tongue pierced in her young adulthood. I don’t believe she has either piercing left, but it’s clear that this is one area where my kid sister has it all over me.

When I was 12, I had my ears pierced again. I was at the mall when I did it on a whim. My mom was there, because I think I needed her permission. I remember that piercing much more clearly. I remember the brief stab of pain, which was shocking but not altogether horrible. I remember that I did the after-care myself, and it wasn’t a big deal. I remember my love affair with earrings as a 13-year-old. The bigger the better, was my motto. While I don’t often wear earrings today, I still put in a pair often enough that my ears haven’t closed over (at least not completely).

Hannah strikes a pose pre-ear-piercing
Hannah strikes a pose outside the Claire’s

When my first child, Hannah, was a baby, I decided that I needed an ear-piercing policy. My own mother had our ears pierced when we were preschoolers, and for me it clearly wasn’t good timing. I know that some cultures pierce their daughter’s ears in infancy, with the idea that the babies can’t pull at their ears or otherwise interfere with the healing process. I know that other parents make their kids wait until their teens or beyond to have it done. I think either of those are fine, but neither was for me. Eventually, I decided to wait until my kids decided to have it done themselves. I remember thinking, “They’d probably have to be at least six to make that decision.”

Hannah is now six-and-a-half, and about a week ago she asked to have her ears pierced. We talked about it a lot. I explained that it would hurt, and that we’d have to take care of her ears for a long time after it was done. I told her she wouldn’t be able to take her earrings out at first, even to sleep. I let her sit with the whole thing for a couple of days, but she stuck to her decision: she wanted her ears pierced. This is how, last Friday afternoon, I found myself at Claire’s picking out earrings with my daughter.

Hannah falls in love with the Claire's
Hannah falls in love with Claire’s

Up until last week, Hannah had never set foot in Claire’s before. Let me tell you, she fell hard the moment she walked in. A! Whole! Store! Filled! With! Sparkly! Things! Even as she sat in the chair waiting for her ears to be pierced, her eyes never stopped moving. She was nervous, and excited, and way overstimulated, but she also had her game face on. They got two people to do the piercing, so she could have both ears done at the same time, which reduced the agony considerably from where I stood. When she had it done she cried a little bit, until she caught sight of herself in a mirror. Oh, the sparkly ears! She loves them.

As for me, I was totally fine until after Hannah’s ears were pierced. Then I had a moment when I realized my daughter’s ears would never be the same again. My baby had been permanently altered, and I had paid for it, and she’s growing up so fast, and, and, and, and. Mostly, though, I’m happy that she’s happy. And let me tell you, she is happy. She stops random strangers on the street to show them her new earrings. She made a choice, and she carried it through, and in the process she grew up just a little bit in front of my very eyes. Oh, the bittersweet! You can see it for yourself here:

Do you have pierced ears? How old were you when you had it done, and what was it like? What about your kids – are their ears pierced, and how old were they when it happened? I’d love to hear your ear-piercing stories!

Guest Post: Eileen Valazza Shares her Plant-Based Diet

I first came across Eileen Valazza a couple of years ago, and it was love at first blog post. She has an uncanny knack for expressing just what I’m thinking, only way more eloquently. When she offered to write a guest post, I jumped at it. She’ll be discussing her decision to adopt a plant-based – or vegan – diet. While I’m not vegan, I did recently go gluten-free, so I was very interested to hear more about what drove her decisions around diet. Here’s what she had to say.

If you had told me at the beginning of 2011 that I was going to become vegan by the end of the year, I would have laughed outright. While eating cheese. And bacon. And is there such a thing as bacon-wrapped cheese? Yes, I would have liked me some of that.

There I was, with a newborn that couldn’t breastfeed without a lot of interventions, and not exclusively. He had a tongue tie, and I spent all-told five months feeding him through a supplemental nursing system. (If you know what that is, then you know that five months of using an SNS at every feeding is a freaking long time. If you don’t know what that is, then just imagine a tube attached to…well actually, don’t imagine that. Let’s just say it was not fun.)

I was heartbroken that I couldn’t breastfeed as easily as other mothers seemed to be able to. And I was totally stressed out, since feeding my baby took hours and hours of the day. My husband and I ate pepperoni pizza almost every night for dinner because we were too tired to cook anything else.

Eileen Valazza vegan plant-based diet Seattle Halloween
This year it was pretty easy to prevent Z from going on a candy binge, the whole not-walking-yet thing definitely worked in my favor!

A blip.

One day during this hazy “underwater time” (as I call my son’s first six months) I downloaded Crazy Sexy Diet on my kindle while I was breastfeeding. And…I couldn’t finish it. Because she had just too much energy. I was like, OMG calm down you are making me tired with all this talk about juicing! and health! and energy! and, and…I can barely get my clothes on in the morning.

It was so overwhelming. So far from where we were. And yet I heard truth in there somewhere, and I was inspired in spite of myself.

Surfacing.

A couple months later, around the time my son was starting to eat solid foods, I finally finished the book. And I wanted more of that energy. So back to the kindle I went, and this time I got even more scientific. I wanted to answer the question how should our family eat?

The China Study, The Kind Diet, The New Food Revolution, Disease-Proof Your Child…I read all of these in the palm of my hand, as I sat feeding my baby. All of them pointed me toward a whole foods diet with little or no animal products.

Eileen Valazza vegan plant-based diet juice
The whole family about to get a massive hit of micronutrients!

Is a vegan diet absolutely the healthiest there is? No, since it’s possible to be vegan and still eat a diet low in nutrients. [Amber: After all, potato chips are vegan – and gluten-free, to boot.] Is it possible to be super-healthy while still occasionally eating meat? Yes, absolutely. But for myself, when I combined the health considerations with my values in regards to animals and the environment, I decided to strive for vegan.

Which was all well and good, but I needed to know…

OMG what do I eeeeat!?

I didn’t want some ridiculously restrictive 21-day meal plan full of foods I had never heard of. I knew I wouldn’t like nine-tenths of the stuff on there, and I wasn’t going to make the transformation that quickly anyway.

I knew I had to do this my way. But what was “my way”?

It certainly didn’t involve a detox (shudder) or willpower or anything like that. Been there, done that, went back to eating pizza.

Eileen Valazza vegan plant-based diet baby eating avocado
Plant-based baby.

Here are a few things that helped me:

Taking it slow.
I tried to take a long view of the whole thing. If I was going to feed our family healthy food for our entire lives, then I couldn’t get burned out in the first month, or even the first year. Conserving my energy and enthusiasm was vital.

Denying denial!
I adopted a policy of never denying myself. If I wanted something, I ate it. I might try to reflect on why I wanted it in that moment (was I stressed out? no healthy food in the kitchen? could I replace that treat with a healthier, vegan version?) but only afterward.

A spirit of exploration!
Becoming vegan meant altering a lot of recipes I loved, and also experimenting with all sorts of new foods. The bulk food section at Whole Foods was my friend. Beans and grains are so cheap! I could buy a little bit, and explore new things without too much of a commitment.

Not telling anyone.
I’m not a major pronouncements kind of person anyway, but even more so when it comes to talking about diet. If I was going to be in a situation where it was relevant, I would hedge by saying “I’m trying not to eat cheese” or something like that. Even mentioning I was eating vegan often meant people would try to defend their food choices to me, or to challenge my decision. All of which was awkward and made me cringe.

These days, I’m more comfortable talking about my values and why we eat the way we do, but I just opted out of those conversations at the beginning of my journey.

Eileen Valazza vegan plant-based diet kitchen shelving
I admit, my pretty shelves are no small part of why I love the plant-based lifestyle.

Okay, so really, what DO we eat?

Today, as my son approaches his first birthday we’re eating an all whole foods plant-based diet. It includes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. No animal products, and very little refined foods.

That translates to lots of green smoothies, juice, salads, nut butter sandwiches, and main dishes like bean burritos, veggie burgers, lentil tacos, and all sorts of other things I’m still exploring! Surprisingly, cutting out whole categories of food has broadened my repertoire among the types of food that we do eat.

And, miraculously, we have kept up the breastfeeding. Now that my son eats more solid whole foods, he no longer needs supplementing. From “failure to thrive” at the worst of our breastfeeding struggles, to the 50th percentile for weight. Woo hoo! (That’s my favorite part of our story.)

Thanks Amber for inviting me to your online home!

If you or any of your readers have any questions about a plant-based diet, do let me know in comments. And if any of your readers live in Seattle and are interested in connecting with other parents exploring a plant-based diet, they might like to join Plant-based Parents, a group I’m starting on Facebook for information-sharing and support.

Eileen Valazza is a life coach and mama. After reading every book she possibly could about nutrition, she went on to receive a certification in plant-based nutrition from eCornell. She now helps people make peace with what they eat, starting with love and compassion for themselves. You can also find her on Twitter where she’s @evalazza.

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