For Earth Day: The Little Things

For at least a year now, a large jackrabbit has been a regular in our neighborhood. Last spring*, when Claire had only been walking a couple of months, we saw him more than once in the grassy open area in front of our townhouse, or in neighbors’ yards, and I was surprised and thrilled that she could spot his drabness against the dead grass. We would follow him together, sometimes as she tottered wildly on her own, sometimes with her in my arms, until we got too close and he bounded away.

This winter, unseasonably warm here as in the rest of the globe, snow was late coming, but he turned white anyway. I spotted him more than once, looking stark and vulnerable against the green and brown grass, a portent of changes happening too fast.

One night in the late fall, I was coming home late from an outing, driving on the highway — prairie on one side, urban sprawl on the other. In the dark and silence, memory and melancholy pressed in, on the dull edge of this drab city. As I pulled off the highway onto the busy road into our suburb, I suddenly thought of the rabbit and hoped he stayed away from the 4 lanes of traffic I was on. Then I pulled into our driveway, and there he was, glowing in the headlights, luminous against the dying lawn. I called my partner and told him to come to the front and look out. It was too magical a moment to have alone in car.

When the snow came, I was relieved for the rabbit, even though his camouflage really mattered little here. I saw him a couple more times during the winter. Then a couple weeks ago, back on that same busy street, I drove over a pile of white fur. I didn’t want to wish for the death of any animal, but I hoped it was anything but the rabbit.

A couple days ago it was a warm, cloudless day, too warm for March. Claire and I were walking along that road and as we stopped to look at things, I noticed a flash of white fur on the grass by the road. I went closer and it was a rabbit foot — the rabbit’s foot, I was sure. Way bigger than a domestic rabbit’s foot, and furrier. Little bits of pink bone and tendon protruded from the fur.

I thought about the rabbit the rest of day, and at night as I lay down with Claire. I  thought about wildness and wild things and how we like to think that we do them no violence as we continue to expand and consume at will. I thought of the violent moment of impact that crushed that beautiful animal, and recognized that I do violence, too, when I drive and contribute to the emissions that change weather patterns, creatin bigger and bigger storms, destroying the lives of millions in the poorest countries in the world; we do violence when we get rid of a perfectly good cell phone or laptop because we want an upgrade and that phone ends up being “recycled” by a small child in China who is exposed to toxins before those toxins make their way into the environment; we do violence to wild things when we buy a myriad of products containing non-sustainable palm oil that comes from places where wildlife are poached and displaced to make room for palm crops, and on and on.

It’s just a rabbit, just a small thing, this death of one wild creature. But we do small things every day that add up when repeated by millions (or billions) of people and these small things create enormous dangers for both human and animal populations.

I kept thinking of the whiteness of the rabbit against the late fall grass, and then again the whiteness of his foot against the early spring grass — always out of sync with the world we are shaping. I thought of how he had changed to white for the last time that fall. That same day a friend said to me, almost in passing, “you know the last Black Rhino is gone.” I wonder how many more lasts I will see in my lifetime, and, even worse, how many Claire will see in hers.

I read a tweet recently by @YourDailyVegan that said, “Every purchase is the opportunity to save lives & affect positive change. Awesome how much control you have in the world #vegan.” I love this. As a parent, I feel especially helpless to shape a positive world for my child when so much is out of my control, like the loss of the last Black Rhino. But this tweet reminds me that so much else is in our control — like reducing reliance on animal products in our diets, buying fair trade and sustainable options, refusing to buy unnecessary plastic and packaging, not using micro-bead products, unplugging chargers, and much more.

After all, the little things are the big things.

 

*I wrote this last March but never published it, so the spring mentioned here is actually the year before last.

11 Weird (Or Not So Weird) Things to do for the Planet

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When the Blogging U “list” prompt came up, I thought it was kind of a lame thing to write about until I read some of the amazing example lists they gave, including this cool list project. And that same day, I read this depressing article about how the nightmares of climate change are already here, not just approaching. This stuff is even more terrifying to me when I think about the world Claire will grow up in. I often feel helpless to really change things for her, but I try to focus on the things I can do.

Little things done/not done daily by millions of people can make a huge difference, for better or worse. So here is my list of things to do for the planet, some of which are kind of weird because environmentalism brings out the obsessive eccentric in me, and some of which might only seem weird because we live in culture in which wastefulness is the norm:

  1. Use a hankie, use rags, buy responsible toilet paper. Rain forests that breathe for our planet, cool our planet, and house countless species of animals are being destroyed at alarming rates so that we can have the convenience of single use paper products made from virgin forests. I go into a rage when I see those stupid commercials showing how strong and absorptive a paper towel is. You know what is stronger and more absorptive than any brand of paper towel? A cotton rag cut from an old t-shirt. And using a hankie doesn’t have to be weird like it was for the kid beside my sister in elementary school who took his out from time to time and rummaged in it. Use it once and toss in the wash. DIY note: an old flannel receiving blanket can be cut up to make great hankies/wipes for babies.
  2. Refuse to drive everyday. This one is definitely weird in the city I live in where most people live in sprawling suburbs and many things are hard to walk or bike to. I’m in a playgroup on Facebook and it is very active: I could drive Claire to activities and meet-ups every single day. I refuse to. Some days she is going to have to settle for just walking to the park with her mama.
  3. Buy locally made clothes that use sustainable fibers. This is not weird but it is expensive, which forces me to buy fewer clothes.When we lived in Ottawa, there was a little boutique that sold only Canadian designed and manufactured clothes. They were not cheap, but you knew that the people making them were paid a fair wage and the fibers were often organic. One summer during my PhD I bought a red Jennifer Glasgow summer dress. It was my entire summer clothing budget and then some. It meant supplementing my wardrobe with other means (see #4), and also meant that I wore that dress to pretty much every special and not-so-special event I went to that summer. And the next. And people probably thought it was weird to see that dress in almost every photo of me on Facebook (ditto for the summer dress I bought at Anthropologie this year). But this is the thing: the fashion industry is an environmental and human rights disaster and the less you take part it in, the better. Not only did the cotton industry in Uzbekistan drain the Aral Sea, it is powered by forced labour, and this is only one example. Don’t even get me started on the leather industry.
  4. Buy used. We buy most of Claire’s clothes at a kids’ consignment-type shop called Once Upon A Child. I’ve given up the idea that giving my child the best means buying new clothes from Baby Gap. Giving her the best means not increasing demand for clothes that destroy her planet or hurt people in other countries (see #3). My husband, an economist, has made the argument that buying used or local doesn’t help textile workers in foreign countries; a job with bad conditions and low pay is better than no job in a country without social programs, he would argue. Agreed. So take the money you save buying used and give a Kiva loan to a women’s collective in a country like Bangladesh.
  5. Unplug chargers. Vampire energy sucks. Look it up.
  6. Keep houseplants by the kitchen sink. Whenever I have stale water in the kettle or water bottles, I use it for the plants so it’s not wasted.
  7. Grow a lemon tree. I stuck an organic Meyer lemon seed in a flower pot this spring and voila: a beautiful little tree graced our window all summer until I killed it by leaving the window near it open on cold days. Still, I like to imagine everyone in Canada planting one and having a little forest of millions of lemon trees on window sills. You know, to atone in part for the other forests our TP is destroying (see #1).
  8. Clean with lemon juice, baking soda and white vinegar. Any time I use any kind of cleaning product, I imagine Claire having to drink it some day. I know this sounds weird, but everything that goes down our drains has the potential to end up in our drinking water. Eventually we will not be able to avoid our own water pollution; this is already the case for many people worldwide. Non-eco-friendly toilet bowl cleaners are the worst with their poisonous noxious chemicals. I get that the toilet is a germy place, but do you really need to go all scorched earth on it? Are you going to wash your hands in the basin? I put a big squirt of lemon juice or vinegar around the bowl then use some serious elbow grease with the bowl brush. It looks and smells great afterwards.
  9. Eat leftovers. This is totally not weird to me, but my sister told me that her co-workers said they hate leftovers and never eat them. So she told them to bring them to work and she would eat them, and that is weird, but we all do our part in different ways, I guess? Food waste is not only a waste of all the resources that went into producing that food, it is major contributor to global warming.
  10. Buy the ugly eggplant at the grocery store. Have you ever seen the grocery store staff walking through with a big cart piled with totally eatable but slightly blemished or wilted produce? They’re going to throw it out and it is really depressing. (see #9)
  11. Pee in the shower. This one is legitimately weird, but it really is A Thing. Peeing in the shower can save up to 12 litres of fresh water per saved flush. Universities have actually started campaigns to get students to do this. Imagine 10,000 students all saving one flush per day by peeing in the shower? That’s 120,000 litres of water per day! Seems worth it to me. It also saves toilet paper (see #1).  And it’s really not as gross as it seems, after all: urine is totally sterile — if it’s not, you’ve got a UTI. So for the sake of the planet, I’m going to put it out there: I pee in the shower. Let’s normalize this, people.

 

I Write Because

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“The raw truth of an incident never ends,” writes Michael Ondaatje in Divisidero.

I joined a WordPress daily prompt class just after starting to re-read Divisidero. These words were still running through my head when this prompt came and I thought of them and how writing is sometimes the only way to find the meaning in the endless raw truth of the incidents of our lives.

I write to inhabit the raw truth of relationships long ago lost, of faith given up and found, of people forgotten only until I move beneath the surface of memories. I write to inhabit the raw truth of thing still new and huge, like Claire’s birth and daily changing self, and my identity as mother and partner.

I write to move through the raw truth of literature, of books like Divisidero that haunt and illuminate, that remind us of our own hauntings.

“For we live with those retrievals from childhood that coalesce and echo throughout our lives, the way shattered pieces of glass in a kaleidoscope reappear in new forms and are songlike in their refrains and rhymes, making up a single monologue. We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell,” Ondaatje writes.

We live permanently in the recurrence of our own stories, whatever story we tell.

I write to shape the recurrence of all the stories, my own and those of others, in which I live.

Reading: Words and Music Games For Toddlers and Twos.

 

In my last post, I wrote about Claire’s language development and my concerns. While waiting impatiently for her first in-person assessment by a speech pathologist, I thought I’d get a couple books from the library to see what else I can be doing to help her with language acquisition.

The first one, Word and Music Games for Toddlers and Twos: More Than 150 Brain-boosting Activities, by Dr. Bonnis Macmillan, is a super practical little collection of ideas on how to interact with your child. It sounds sort of obvious — shouldn’t interacting with one’s child just happen? Well, no, I’m realizing. Interacting with tiny people is a skill. Some people (like my dad) are born geniuses at it, while others of us need a little help figuring out how to talk all day to someone who is not yet able to converse. I often find myself just narrating the events of the day because I know baby needs to hear me talk, but I’m pretty sure she just tunes that out; this book gave me ideas for how to directly engage her in age appropriate ways.

Some examples:

In the bath: “Pick up the fish and say ‘Oh look! The fish is diving, diving, diving under your leg! What is it doing?” Make it dive several times under the toddler’s leg and see if she can tell you ‘It is diving'” (10). [Continue with “the soap is washing, washing, washing…” “the boat is zooming, zooming, zooming…” — You get the idea.]

Simple songs: “Describe what you or your toddler are doing by singing new words to the tune of Row, Row, Row Your Boat: ‘Ride, ride, ride in the car (on the bus, on your trike, in the stroller, on mummy’s knee, on daddy’s shoulders…), Gently down the street, Merrily, merrily, merrily, I wonder who we’ll meet?'” (88). [Variations follow; you could go on forever.]

Why I found this book useful:

As you may already be realizing, for the parent many of the games and songs are mind-numbingly repetitive, which is of course exactly what small children need in order to learn language. According to the “Research Says” feature which scatters stats and info throughout the book, “the average number of words parents address directly to their child each hour varies from as little as 600 to 2,000. The more words children hear, the better their vocabulary and IQ scores” (13). Admittedly, I find this stat a little ridiculous: 600 hundred words an hour is 10 words a minute every minute of every hour (which doesn’t sound that bad to me); 2,000 words an hour is about one word for every two seconds of every hour. I cannot imagine keeping up this constant of a stream of words on a regular basis.

That said, I recognize simple the truth behind the research: the more I talk to Claire, the more she will talk, and that’s what I want. I admit to needing help with this. When we’re sitting on the floor playing blocks, my conversation might go something like this: “Where is the red block? Here is it,” followed by 30 seconds of silence while she adds it to the tower. This book shows how to turn that simple interaction into a more active and engaging word activity that now would look more like, “Where is the red block? The block is on my head. Can you put it on your head? Where is the green block? The block is on my foot. Can you put it on your foot?…” Is it overkill? Maybe. But I’m willing to give it a try. There a million books out there on improving communication skills with with your partner; this book gives your tools for improving communication skills with you little one.

Word of Caution:

Like much “expert” advice, I find the “Research Says” feature to be often guilt-inducing. Like this: “Children spoken to most by their parents during the first 3 years of life end up with superior reading, spelling, speaking and listening abilities 5 years later” (67). In my mind this translates to: if five years from now my child doesn’t have superior language skills, it’s my fault for not having talked to her enough. So it’s wise to remember the lyrics to an old Sarah McLachlan song, “there’s always some reason to feel not good enough,” and just take what you can from this book. Feel good about working on adding a couple ideas to your repertoire of baby communication skills and don’t beat yourself up if you never hit the magical 2,000 words an hour (because, really, does anyone?).

Things You Learn When Your Toddler is a Late Talker.

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One of our favorite photos is of me propping a newborn Claire on my lap as my mother reads her a book. Even at that young age, she is clearly focusing on the book. She’s always been interested in books and, as academic parents, we assumed she would be word-focused like us — whether it be the written or spoken word. She walked fairly early at barely 11 months, and we were sure she would talk early, too.

But at 21 months, although she signs a lot, she has few spoken words. And I am anxious about it, even though everyone tells me not to be. Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. It is very hard not to compare your child with other children. When Claire was just about a year, we were at a mom’s group gathering and one mom mentioned that her baby would stand in her crib and shout, “Mama!” I felt my first shot of angst. Claire had not yet said “mama.” Even now, she says “mama” often when I’m out and she wants me, but rarely says it directly to me. Children develop at different paces, I know this. But it’s harder to accept when you feel like your child is “behind.”
  2. Start early. Our pediatrician suggested that if Claire was still not talking much by 15 months we should start the process for seeing a Speech and Language Pathologist (SPL). At 16 months we had a phone evaluation and were sent to a class called Encouraging First Words. In the class, the SPL told us they would call us in about 2 months because many babies have a language explosion around 18 months. When they called around that time and she had not had The Explosion, we were referred to audiology for a hearing test. We just went to that appointment yesterday. The next step (after audiology sends their report) is to be booked for an actual assessment with an SPL. I suspect Claire will be close to two by the time that happens. Many people have stories of a family member who spoke late and had no other development issues. Waiting and crossing our fingers and hoping all is well, however, seems like too big a gamble to me. And the SPL said as much at the class, noting that many people wait until kindergarten to really address a speech delay, by which time bad habits may have set in. If by two or three Claire is talking like crazy, then no harm done in having gone through these steps — but if she is not talking, then I will be very happy to have jumped through all these hoops now and have specialists in place.
  3. Keep signing. I really have no idea what we would have done without signing. Even just knowing if Claire is hungry or thirsty is priceless, but there are many other useful things she can sign to help us understand her needs and wants. A common misconception is that signing delays speech, but the SPL assured us that this is not the case at all.  Several parents in the class noted that their children were biting and she suggested that this was from frustration at not being able to communicate. Signing alleviates this frustration, and, when combined with spoken words, actually helps to develop spoken language. There are lots of great videos on YouTube to help you teach your child to sign.
  4. It is super annoying when people say, “Oh just wait: once she starts talking, you’ll wish she never had.” Uh, no. I cannot wait to be able to truly communicate with my child. I will never tire of hearing her voice (unless maybe she’s 16 and screaming ‘you’re ruining my life!’ when I refuse to let her drive to Burning Man with her boyfriend).

Holy Grail: The Baby-Friendly Coffee Shop

I will admit that I am a total sucker for that Apple commercial that makes having kids look all magical. I may have even rewound it once or twice on the PVR. I would have totally hated this commercial when I was single (“not everyone is having babies!”), but now that I’m on the other side, I’ve been forced to admit that, yeah, ok, lots of people have babies. Clearly, Apple gets that parents are a huge demographic — a demographic that spends money. So why haven’t coffee shops figured this out?

If anyone needs coffee, it’s the sleep-deprived parents of an infant. We will happily drop $6 on a specialty coffee, more than once day if necessary. And especially if you’re a stay at home parent or on a parental leave and cooped up in the house all day, a trip to a coffee shop might be the highlight of your week, and you’ll happily buy not only coffee, but all the baking you don’t have time to do anymore. You’d think coffee shops would love parents with babies, but when we visited Ottawa this summer with Claire I realized that in most of my favorite coffee shops (and restaurants) there was no place to change a baby. Admittedly, some of these are in older buildings that aren’t even wheelchair accessible, let alone able to accommodate a counter in the washroom big enough to change a baby. That said, our favorite scone shop moved from a tiny character home to a huge venue in a brand new office building — still no space to change a baby. Clearly parents with children did not figure into the owners’ new plans. This I just don’t get.

Long ago I was a barrista at Saskatoon’s late great Caffe Sola, possibly the least child-friendly coffee shop ever: the furniture was made of slate, granite, and steel, with toddler-head-height pointy corners; the floor was concrete, and the coffee cups were hand made by the ceramic artist Mel Bolen. Yet a few brave parents would come and camp out there for hours with their small people, because the coffee was amazing, the food was wonderful, and the atmosphere was glorious (hello, roaring fire in the hand-carved fireplace on cold mornings).

Sadly, Sola is no longer with us, but thankfully, one of the former pillars of Sola, baker and barrista extraordinaire Nikita Brown, has opened Citizen Cafe &  Bakery. Same great fair trade organic artisan coffee, new and amazing food, gorgeous atmosphere, and this: Citizen is incredibly child-friendly. First of all, they have a change table in the bathroom (anyone who’s had to change a baby on his or her lap while sitting on the toilet in a tiny bathroom will totally get why this is so crucial). And it’s in a bathroom that is not specifically marked “women’s”, so dads can change babies too (I’m obsessed with this). There is a sunny little play area and children’s table near a cool space with comfy couches, chunky knitted bean bags, and armchairs. This area is somewhat separate from the rest of the coffee shop, so if babies are getting restless, people having coffee meetings or reading the paper can still do so in peace. Because the armchairs face away from the rest the shop and are up against a dividing wall, a mom could probably breastfeed pretty comfortably there.

In a neighboring community to ours in Edmonton, there is a coffee shop that is specifically for moms and babies. Frankly, the coffee is bad, the food is mediocre, and the atmosphere is meh, but moms go there because there is a nice diaper changing area at the back, play area for the kids, and no one will be annoyed by fussing babies. And although these latter features are nice, I can’t really say I enjoy the feeling of being segregated in a “moms only” coffee shop — it’s kind of like having coffee in a daycare. Citizen manages to make going for coffee an adult indulgence that is accessible to both parents and non-parents (it’s also wheelchair accessible). Being accessible is clearly good business: Citizen is always packed. Inclusiveness is also just something to be expected from a shop whose menu features sandwiches named after Harvey Milk, Louis Riel and Tommy Douglas. Now if only we can convince Nikita to open one in Edmonton…

Sleeping beauty

I’m sorry to say that I am a person who indulges in regret. I regret leaving the cantaloupe on the counter to ripen a day too long, I regret undertaking a PhD for dubious reasons, I regret many things which I do not plan on reflecting upon in a public space. During my pregnancy I was given the book On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep, and I tried their tactics because I desperate for sleep.* The book promises your baby will be sleeping through the night by eight weeks. Eights weeks. To achieve this miracle, you are supposed to let your very young infant cry herself to sleep. I tried it. For about 5 minutes. And I still regret it.

But I don’t regret it too much because ever since then, Claire has had pretty much unlimited access to me at any time of day or night. I know that this is in many ways a luxury. I’m in a new moms’ group and after a sleep consultant visited our group, some of the moms have started sleep training; unlike me, most of them have jobs to go back to, and nursing all hours of the day and night is not an option. One close friend and supermom toughed it out with a baby who never slept more than 3 hours a night for the first ten months of his life (this was before Claire and I remember being both horrified and in awe). She only started sleep training when she and her partner noticed the baby had bags under his eyes and was as tired as they were. We do what we have to for the health of our babies, and for our own mental and physical health. That sometimes means letting a baby cry it out. (So far we’re lucky because Claire has given us the gift of the occasional 8 hour stretch of sleep, and 4-6 hour chunks most nights; I would probably be writing a much different post if I had not slept more than 2-3 hours at a time in months, with no end in sight).

I asked our pediatrician about the sleep issue recently and she seemed concerned about my habit of nursing Claire back to sleep when she wakes in the night. “You need to teach her how to sleep,” she advised. Like most experts, she feels that “sleep crutches” like nursing, rocking, and snuggling don’t teach a baby to sleep on his or her own. I wonder, though, if the “experts” are setting a few of us up for regrets with this assumption that putting a baby to sleep in the gentlest way possible is not teaching them to sleep. When I was pregnant, a good friend advised against sleep training and told me how her husband sang and played guitar to get their boys to sleep. Her sons are some of the most creative, independent, smart teenagers I’ve ever met — and they somehow learned to sleep. Is it possible to teach a baby that falling asleep does not have to be lonely experience? Is it possible to teach a baby that waking in the night can be a pleasurable and soothing experience? When I wake in the night fretting, often the only thing that gets me back to sleep is waking my husband and getting him to put his arms around me. Or sometimes I don’t even wake him, I just wrap around him like starfish and take comfort in closeness. Why would I deprive my baby of the same comfort and pleasure?

My mom tells me that she nursed us to sleep when we were infants and rocked us to sleep as we got older. When we were even as old as 5 or six, she would read to all three of us in a hideous 1970s upholstered rocking chair; we would all fall asleep, and then my dad would peel us off one by one and put us in bed. She tells how she hated losing the warmth as each sleeping child was lifted away, leaving a cold spot behind. We may not really remember that time as she does, but I feel like the warmth of those moments is with us somewhere, as it still is so vibrantly for her.

I often fall asleep while nursing Claire to sleep and there is really nothing sweeter than sleeping with a tiny person warm in your arms, the small weight of her body on your body. I often read out loud while she falls asleep and I love to think about all the lovely words moving in her little subconscious while she drifts off.

When she wakes in the early hours of the morning and I bring her into bed to nurse, the sight of her big eyes tightly closed, and small mouth wide open and searching for my body is possibly the most delicately beautiful moment of need and vulnerability I will even see in another human being. And while I’ll never regret missing a little (or a lot of) sleep, I would regret more than anything missing these moments.

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*I know some lovely people who are very wonderful parents who have used Baby Wise and swear by it. But this website exposes not only the author Gary Ezzo’s lack of  credentials, but also the American Pediatric Association’s and other pediatricians’ warnings about the dangers of this approach. I had just joined the mom’s network around the time of reading this book, and one of the moms, who had a 2-year old as well as an infant, advised us to enjoy the middle of the night wake-ups because they would be over too soon. I thought she was crazy at the time, but it was in fact much better advice than anything I would read in that book. Thanks, Alison!