Archives for December 2011

2011 Year in Photos Slide Show of Awesomeness

It’s funny how traditions start. You do something a few times and presto, you have yourself a tradition. It all kind of sneaks up on you accidentally like that. Although, if you think about it, maybe it’s not really funny at all. Maybe all of life kind of sneaks up on you accidentally like that.

One of my most treasured blogging traditions started in 2008, when I decided to make a slideshow with some of my favourite photos from the previous 12 months. I spent a long time choosing the images, and then I set the whole thing to music and watched it over and over and over. I liked it so much that I did it again in 2009, and 2010. This is how it officially became a tradition. Once you hit that third time, it’s no longer just something that you do, it’s something that you do because it’s that time of year and you always do it at that time of year. So it’s no surprise that as 2011 ends, I’ve made another year-end slideshow.

I don’t know what everyone else thinks of my slideshow, but I can tell you that my husband Jon and I adore it. My kids adore it, too. So I’m going to keep doing it. Because, you see, some traditions are for breaking and some are for keeping. The slideshow is definitely a keeper.

Happy New Year, and all the best for 2012!

PS – Another tradition that I enjoy is my monthly review of things I learned. Some are serious, some are funny, and all are hard-won. I will be running my December review on Monday, January 2. I’d love it if you played along. For this month I’m expanding the definition to include year-in-review posts as well. Write something on or before January 2 and come back here to include it in my link-up!

In Search of a Word

We all know that New Year’s resolutions don’t work. In fact, pretty much all of us have made them and not kept them at some point in our lives. I’m no different. I have made resolutions to exercise or organize or self-improve, and pretty much all of them fell by the wayside before January was over.

All the same, I think that a new year can offer a great opportunity to make some changes. There’s something about a new year that seems fresh and clean and full of possibilities. Sometimes a natural shift like that can provide a great impetus to do something new and different, and improve your life in the process. There’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of the feeling of a new start that comes around at New Year’s, and doing a little bit of soul-searching and personal reflection. But nobody wants to set a bunch of goals that go nowhere, so what do do?

Last year I decided to choose a word for 2011. The idea was that it would give me something to focus on, and something to keep in mind as I went about my life. My word was “space”. I wanted more space in my life for myself, my family, and the things that I enjoy doing. I wanted to end the year feeling as if I had more time, a better living space and more room to maneuver.

the best is yet to come
Image credit: Jeremy Yerse on Flickr

Did choosing a word for 2011 work? Yes and no. On the one hand, I did make changes and choices to bring more space into my life. I let go of some things that weren’t working for me, set some priorities and started saying “no” more. On the other hand, I started a new job in July, wrote an e-book, and started a podcast. As I see 2011 out, the truth is that I probably brought more things into my life than I let go of over the course of the year. But there’s something critical that makes it worthwhile, and it’s that I love the things I brought into my life. I adore interviewing people for my podcast, I love my job at VancouverMom.ca, and I’m immensely proud of my e-book. Maybe I filled up the space I created, but I filled it up with good things, so I’m calling it a win.

Buoyed by my semi-success, I’ve decided to choose a word to represent what I want to bring into my life in 2012. But with January 1 closing in on me, I still don’t know what I want that word to be. When the word “space” came to me last year, it just felt right. I’ve been spending a few weeks thinking about my 2012 word, and so far nothing has really resonated with me. I’ve considered joy, play, sustainability, purpose and passion, but none of them quite fit. Peace is the closest one so far to being a winner, but it’s still not there. And so, I’m continuing to work on it.

I trust that the right word for 2012 will come to me. In the meantime, I will sit with it, and think about what I want to bring more of into my life. No resolutions – or magic – required.

Do you choose words or set intentions at New Year’s? And have you decided what you want more of in your life for 2012? I could use suggestions!

Do Colors Help Inspire Your Kids’ Creativity?

I have two budding artists, and I love seeing what they create. I’m always looking for ways to inspire their creativity. To that end, today I’m sharing a guest post by Stephanie Corfee, artist and designer.

Stephanie Corfee guest post inspiring creativityIf you have small or school-aged children, you’ll know that the winter can be a tedious time. It’s cold out, and playing outside isn’t an option. With winter break and snow days home from school, you are likely to have some very bored children on your hands. If you want to inspire their creativity and imagination, why not turn to color?

I encourage my five year old to explore color when he’s being creative. We paint together all the time. He never tires of the “surprise” when he mixes two paint colors, or adds a few drops of white or black to his palette.

It’s also really fun to take direction from him. He’ll tell me to make a “blue” painting and then watch and marvel at the many shades of blue I can come up with. It has made him want to learn the names of all the “blue” crayons in his Crayola box. He’s proud when he can call out those colors when he encounters them again.

I’ve also noticed that his imagination is developing quite nicely when it comes to coloring. He’s not afraid to cheerfully create a yellow elephant or blue dog. Maybe that’s the glimmer of a kid who is learning to think outside the box? And i always encourage that!

Stephanie Corfee guest post inspiring creativityHere are a few ideas on how you can encourage your child’s creativity with color:

  • Color of the Day – Decide on a color of the day and ask your child to find things in that color. Make a game out of it by keeping track of how many objects they find. If they find 10 items, give them a small treat.
  • Grab a Book – Grab one of your child’s favorite stories. Instead of reading it, flip the pages and talk about the colors that are used. How many different colors are there? Do the colors signify things – such as happiness, sadness, etc within the story?
  • Make up a Color Story – Have your child make up a story about a color – verbally, or by drawing the story out onto paper. For example, if the color was Yellow, what would Yellow like to do? What would Yellow like to eat? Who would Yellow be friends with?

How do you inspire your child’s creativity on bleak winter days?

Stephanie Corfee is an artist and designer who creates intricate, vibrant artwork from her home studio in Pennsylvania. You can find tutorials, see new work, and get more advice from Stephanie on her blog. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Do Kids Need to be Challenged?

I overheard one mom talking to another mom on the playground: “I think the books my daughter’s reading at school are too easy for her. I asked her teacher to give her harder ones, because I want her to be challenged. If she gets bored – game over.”

I understand this mom’s concerns. She wants to be sure that her child has access to reading material that interests and engages her. In response, she’s taking an active role in her daughter’s education and discussing it with her teacher. She’s doing her best for her child, and I think that’s great. But I also wonder – do kids really need to be challenged? And if they’re not, what then?

Right now we’re on day 11 of Christmas vacation. My six-year-old Hannah won’t be going back to school for another week. Now that Christmas is over and the flurry of activities and visits and gift openings is done, I can report that she is bored. She tells me as much countless times every day. Sometimes, I respond by engaging her in activities. This is a school holiday, and on one level I see it as an opportunity for us to spend time together. But other times, I have stuff to do – or I just plain need a breather. When that happens, I tell Hannah that boredom is character-building. At first, she whines in response, but usually within a few minutes she’s found something to entertain herself with.

I tend to think that a certain amount of boredom is good for kids. I think that the boredom I suffered as a child gave me skills that I use on a daily basis. Like, say, when I’m playing a game with my kids that totally bores me. I know how to buckle down and do things that aren’t that interesting or engaging to me. I know how to fill up my time when it’s not filled for me. And I know how to make my own fun. These are all things I learned during my own school vacations, when long days with nothing to do stretched before me.

I also had the experience of not being particularly challenged in school. I graduated first in my high school class of approximately 500 students, which is really just a pretentious way of saying that I was the smart kid. I usually finished my work before everyone else, and then I filled my time with quiet activities. If I was really lucky, I would get to go play on the class computer (when we had one, which wasn’t always – this was the 1980s, after all) or take something to the office. If I wasn’t so lucky, then I would look out the window or make up stories in my head. Was this time productive? I don’t know. But I do know that, once again, my boredom taught me some skills that I still use today.

There’s actually something of a debate amongst experts about the utility – or futility – of boredom. Some people say that gifted students need to be challenged more. If they’re not, the argument goes, they won’t reach their full academic potential. And to some degree, I can see their point. If a teacher has a class of 20 students, that teacher likely won’t be able to address their individual needs fully. This means that some students will be effectively held back by those who don’t catch on as quickly. Wouldn’t it be better if those smart kids had something more useful to do while they waited for everyone else to catch up?

I wonder, though, how far it’s really reasonable to go in terms of maximizing each student’s potential. I attended engineering school with some seriously smart folks. Some of them managed to graduate from high school one, two or even three years early. If a really gifted student is allowed to progress at their own pace, they may master all their high school material when they’re only 15 or 16 years old – and what then? Being an academic genius does not necessarily qualify you to navigate the world of post-secondary education, which is created for adults. I found the adjustment to be pretty huge even as an 18-year-old.

Of course, a world full of Doogie Howsers is not necessarily the outcome of challenging students appropriately. Giving gifted students access to enrichment programs can give them a little something extra, while they progress through school at the same rate as their peers. Ultimately, this is what I did. I took International Baccalaureate classes in high school. I was also a Girl Guide, I volunteered as a candy striper, I sang in a choir and I studied Tae Kwon Do. I found ways to fill my time and challenge myself, but that only came later, when I was a teenager. When I was my daughter’s age, I spent a fair bit of time being bored.

Some experts agree with my belief that boredom can be good for kids. They say that like all emotions – including anger, sadness and jealousy – boredom serves a purpose. And so when you’re faced with some unstructured time during a school vacation, you shouldn’t rush to fill it. Letting your kids figure it out for themselves helps them to develop emotionally and intellectually.

There’s one more idea that plays into the debate on challenging kids or letting them entertain themselves, and that’s the concept of flow state. Flow is that thing you experience when you’re totally present in an activity. You may not even notice that time’s passing, because you’re so engaged. In order to experience flow, you have to be appropriately challenged. This means that the task you’re working on shouldn’t be super-easy for you, but it also shouldn’t be super-hard. It should be just hard enough that you have to think about it a little. Video games are a good example of something that creates flow for most people, because as you master the game it gets progressively harder. If it’s designed well, you’ll always be in the perfect zone, and you won’t be bored or frustrated.

Good leisure (and probably good educational) activities actually are a little bit challenging, so that they create that flow state. But the question is – how do we get to those leisure activities? Do we just plop our kids down in front of video games, or send them to classes? Or, do we let them figure it out for themselves? I would argue that we probably should do a little bit of both. I think that sometimes, boredom is useful because it forces kids to try new things to entertain themselves. In the process, they may find activities that create that flow state for them. This is how Hannah found drawing. But I don’t think we should totally idealize the idea of unstructured time, either. There are benefits to exposing kids to new ideas and new experiences, too. I think the true challenge of parenting is determining just where that balance lies – at least until Christmas vacation is over.

What do you think – do you think kids need to be challenged more, or do you think that boredom is good? And how do you get that balance right? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

The Practical Miracle of Birth, and Christmas

Christmas is an easy holiday to love. There are trees with twinkling lights, cookies and hot cocoa, holiday parties and feasts, and children singing Christmas carols. And behind it all, there’s a newborn baby, bringing peace, hope and redemption to a troubled world.

I am a mother. While my babies were not born in a stable, and no angels heralded their arrival, I understand the promise and gift of a child. Newborns haven’t yet been labelled or judged. They are pure, distilled human potential, and the moment that they arrive is sanctified and holy, regardless of the location or circumstances. I believe that all people feel this. You can see it in the way that we react to newborns, and even pregnant women. We feel the promise of new life, and it resonates with us. This is the feeling that Christmas brings out in me.

Cuddling at 8 weeks
Me with baby Hannah

Every birth is miraculous. It means the continuation of humanity’s existence. It means two people where just before there was only one. It means one person putting herself on the line for the sake of another. It is the beginning of decades of life, and the creation of a new family order. There is hope in birth, and mystery. What will this child become? Who is this new little person? How will this baby change things?

Resting together
Newborn Jacob, his hair still wet

Every birth is also deeply practical. Both of mine reached a point where I pushed only because I had no choice. Pregnancy takes its course, and a child arrives, one way or another. And then you make the adjustments, because you have to. You get up in the middle of the night and feed the baby, because you have to. You buy diapers and a car seat and little baby clothes because you have to. You eventually figure out systems and rhythms and routines to make the whole experience flow a little more smoothly, but parenthood is far more poopy diapers and 3am feedings than moments of transcendence.

CARAVAGGIO Rest during the flight from Egypt, detail of Mary and Jesus, c1597
Photo credit: carulmare on Flickr

When I consider the Christmas story – a young couple, traveling, welcoming their baby in a stable – I see both the miraculous and practical. Of course, the fact that the story also includes a star pointing the way and a heavenly host praising God amps up the miraculous level a little more than usual. But at its heart, it’s still a birth story. It’s the arrival of a new human being, full of promise and potential, who we hope will grow into someone great.

Tonight, I will make merry and eat turkey and read stories aloud. I will help my children write a note for Santa, and leave out a plate of cookies and a glass of milk. I will remind them (over and over) that they have to go to sleep if they want Santa to come, and I will remind them to come and get me before they go look at the tree. I will stay up late wrapping. I will fill stockings and light up the tree. And before I finally go to sleep I will visit my sleeping children, and remember the practical miracles of their own births. Those moments when they came into being, and changed my life, whether I was ready or not.

Merry Christmas! I will not be posting on a regular schedule next week, so let me take this chance to wish you all the best, and thank you for sharing this past year with me. It means so much.

Podcast: Susan Larkin of UNICEF Canada

Sometimes, an email comes through your inbox that you can’t ignore. That’s how I felt when I was contacted by UNICEF Canada, asking me to volunteer as a Digital Ambassador for their Survival Gifts program. Survival Gifts are real items that are shipped to children and families in need all around the world. They include things like bicycles so that children can get to school or just have fun, support for a child orphaned by AIDS, malnutrition relief bundles and water purification tablets. I actually bought some gifts through UNICEF last year for my mother, sister and grandmother. I believe in what they’re doing, and I knew I wanted to talk about it.

Strocel.com podcast UNICEF Canada Survival Gifts bicycles

The thing that strikes me about the Survival Gifts is how very affordable they really are. For example, a Learning Bundle with a soccer ball and pump, five storybooks and five school supply sets can help five children get an education, and it’s only $80. I spend more than that on school supplies for one child each year – and I don’t get a soccer ball. A vaccine pack, with 73 polio vaccines, 73 tetanus vaccines and 83 measles vaccines is only $40. In the developing world, these diseases still pose a real threat to the health of children, and yet the vaccines cost so little.

I wanted to know more about the work that UNICEF Canada does, so I spoke to Susan Larkin, the Director of Community Engagement for the organization. She’s a mom herself – she has a six-year-old and a three-year-old, just like me. She explained to me exactly what UNICEF does, and how the Survival Gift program works. Like most people I’m familiar with UNICEF, but I wasn’t clear on what makes them unique. Susan explained that. She also shared tips on how to discuss issues like poverty with children, and shared some first-hand stories of how Survival Gifts have changed children’s lives.

Strocel.com podcast UNICEF Canada Survival Gifts backpacks

If you still have people to buy gifts for, why not consider something that will have a real impact? You can go online, buy a Survival Gift and print out a gift card. You don’t have to leave your house, and you can do it in a few minutes. And the program doesn’t end once the holidays are over. You can visit UNICEF Canada year-round. Literacy packs make great end-of-year teacher gifts, for example – especially if you suddenly realize on the last day of school that you forgot to buy something. (I can’t be the only mom who’s done that, right?) Plus, you get a tax receipt with your purchase.

It was really great to speak with Susan. I was so proud of myself for getting through our conversation without dissolving into tears. As a mom, I feel the need so strongly. I can’t imagine what it would be like to not have medicine for my children, or not have the means to send them to school. I was very glad to hear about a program that allows me to make a tangible difference, easily and affordably, without having to go stand in line at the mall. If you’d like to know more about UNICEF Canada and the Survival Gifts program, or you’d just like to hear how you can talk about big issues with your own kids, listen to the podcast:

I’m off next week, but I’m working on lots of great interviews for January. I’m even trying a new format for a podcast on family size. I’m really looking forward to another year of talking to really cool people, and sharing their insights and inspiration with you. Subscribe to the Strocel.com podcast in iTunes, and you won’t miss a minute!

The Crafting my Life E-Book

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.

I wrote an e-book! It’s true, I really did. I wrote an e-book, and then I hired a fabulous editor, and now I have an actual finished book that you can read on your computer or your e-reader. It’s 114 pages long, and it has 12 sections, and it looks very book-like. I’m quite proud of myself, let me tell you.

Crafting my Life Finding Your Purpose Living with Intention E-BookThe Crafting my Life e-book is based on the material I created for the Crafting my Life online class. The online class is for moms who know they want something else in their lives, but they’re not entirely sure what. Or maybe they have some ideas, but they need a little bit of help getting started. It runs for 12 weeks, and it covers a new topic each week. Class participants take stock of their lives, draw inspiration from others, tap into their creative sides, and make space in their lives for themselves. They find their bliss, face their dragons, manage their money and work on their relationships. There are emails with ideas to think about, audio interviews, videos and live chats. There’s also an online community to draw support from.

I love the Crafting my Life online class, but I know that it’s not for everyone. For one thing, it has a set start and finish date, so you need to work around someone else’s schedule. For another, not everyone wants to participate in an online community or live chats. And finally, while I’ve done my best to make the class affordable to most everyone, I know that cost can be an issue for many moms. That’s where the Crafting my Life e-book comes in.

As I said, the e-book includes material from the online class. In fact, if you took the Crafting my Life class you’ll be receiving an email with a link to the book soon, and if you take the class in the future you’ll receive the book as part of the class material. But the book can stand on its own, too. My idea was to create a slightly more affordable option that people can start at anytime, and work through on their own, at their own pace. I’m happy to say I’ve done that. You won’t have access to the audio interviews, videos, community or live chats, but you will have lots of practical ideas for helping you start off in a new direction. And I’m always here to support you on your journey, whether you’re working through the book or taking the class.

I sent an email to the Crafting my Life mail list earlier this week announcing the e-book price and launch dates. If you’re a subscriber, you gain advance access and discount pricing to everything in Crafting my Life. You’re also the first to hear what’s happening next. But I love you whether you subscribe or not, so let me share the info with you that I shared with my subscribers a couple of days ago:

Crafting my Life E-Book Launch

December 26, 2011 – Advance discount sales start for mail list subscribers. Price: $42 USD
January 1, 2012 – The e-book officially launches for everyone. Price: $57 USD

To give you a comparison point, the Crafting my Life online class is regularly priced at $117 USD, so you’re saving more than 50% by opting for the e-book.

If you can’t decide between the e-book and the class, I’m going to make life easy for you. Since the e-book is included with the class, if you buy the e-book I’m crediting its cost towards the class fee, if you decide to enroll at any point in the future. I’ll be running the online class again in late January. So whether you prefer to work on your own, or you want to take part in a community of people who are seeking to live with greater authenticity and purpose, or you can’t make up your mind, there’s an option for you. So stay tuned to Crafting my Life, and prepare for a great year in 2012!

PS – You may be wondering about my dream of writing an actual book. I still have that. And I learned a lot while I worked on the Crafting my Life e-book that I’m using as I approach my book dream. Sometimes dreams take some time to realize, but if we keep hold of them, we can find that we have many opportunities to learn and grow and make progress. I view my experiences with my e-book as an example of that.

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