Each time I darken the door of the bowling alley, I wonder why it is that I don't come here more often.  I love this place and I love bowling.  Over the weekend, the JoyFam and I darkened away.

We paid the very reasonable lane rental fee and sat down to replace our street shoes with what we all agreed were the coolest shoes in the Universe.  We also all agreed that we'd secretly like to steal our bowling shoes, only we restrained ourselves.  We thought it might look fishy if six pair went missing all at once.   As the kids and I compared newly hippified feet, JoyBoy furtively went to register our names with the teenaged boy at the front counter.  To our great, noisy mirth, we looked up at the screen to see that the kids were dubbed Manstink, Tugboat, Bologna and Bill for all the bowling world to see.  JoyBoy, interestingly enough, had his regular old name and I was shackled with my childhood moniker of Jench.  As in Jench the Wench for those of you not in the know.  The uncomprehending teenaged boy at first spelt Manstink as Mansink, so JoyBoy had to yell out a correction from across the alley to Anabel's combined horror and delight.

I went first and confidently shot a strike.  Wait a minute.  Does one 'shoot' in bowling?  I think what I meant to say is that I bowled a strike.  Anyway, exultation rocketed straight to my head, rendering me stunningly overconfident and my game devolved from there.  There were no more strikes for me for the rest of the hour. 

The hero of the hour was Bill, or Oliver as you'll know him.  He was, to our surprise and great  hilarity, an excellent bowler.  We laughed and laughed as the seven-year-old trounced us all, over and over again.  Each time he'd throw/shoot/wing another excellent shot, he'd dance around in merry triumph, tiny arms pumping high above his bespectacled head.  His little chicken legs clad in his little skinny jeans gyrating about in lordly joy made our time worth every penny just in and of itself.   O my goodness did we laugh at Bill and his bowling triumphs.

The other kids were pretty good too, which I'm quite sure makes us a family of geeks.   Of course, it helps tremendously that we insist upon having the bumpers down, thus eliminating any gutter balls that would most certainly plague us otherwise.    We also have no real problem with lofting.

The JoyBoy was a highly inelegant Second Placer.  With not an iota of humility, he'd dance around in a superiority-induced frenzy, yelling out things like sucka!  you pack of suckas!  as he swung his hips about in a very in-your-face fashion.  Have I ever mentioned that JoyBoy has taught me a lot about parenting?  Part way through our terrifically loud game, another family rented the lane right next to us.  In their ranks were three little children, all under the age of what looked to be 8.  These little children appeared to never have seen anything like us.  They stared and they stared.  They didn't smile back at us when we attempted same because, I think, they were frightened.  For fear of alarming them further, we tried to tone it down a bit.  I mean, we didn't want to look like freaks or anything.  Goodness knows we wouldn't want to malign our true nature.  Our hour came to a close shortly thereafter.   We're going again next week.

We have a little dynamic at work in our family of late.  Little Lucy has just now entered the world of online shopping and is currently experiencing the less exhilarating side of it.  She waits for her treasure to arrive.  She waits and she waits and then she waits.  And then, in a burst of flamboyant frustration, she waits some more.

Every day after school, she asks me if I've checked the mail.  Every day I tell her no.   We then proceed to our next stop and pick up our Bigs and our carpool friend.  Every day Lucy then asks me if we can check the mail.  Every day I say yes and smile and hand her the key as I pull over to the  mailboxes, her daily tormentors.  These mailboxes - they mock her.  They sadden and they grieve her.  She hates these mailboxes and then she tries a different tack.  She's cheerfully manipulative and sunnily, as she makes her way toward these witholding  metal boxes, out surely to thwart the fulfillment of her joy,  she calls over her shoulder, wish me luck!  And then she's angry again as she sorts through that day's contents only to find that all the Universe conspires against her to squash her sunshiney joy.

She's ordered an American Girl bathtub, complete with dazzling artificial pink bubbles.  Daily, she pages through the American Girl catalogue, which is dog-eared and tattered from all the loving perusal it's undergone.  She saves her allowance each week and painstakingly works her financial way toward more American Girl paraphernalia.  She hates that in its company name though, it excludes her Canadian devotedness and says so regularly.  When she's grouchy, American Girl's lack of Canadian-ness is oft lamented. 

So she's just now in that heady, unusual position of actually having ordered something from this precious catalogue of hers.  And now she waits and she decries the state of the nearby Canadian border crossing, which has almost certainly mistaken her beloved bath tub for a kilo or two of cocaine.  She's indignant to be mistaken for a drug dealer.  She wonders aloud if maybe one of these selfish border guards has taken her bath tub home for his own, undeserving little girl to play with.  She vows that she'll check it out very carefully for signs of clandestine play when it finally arrives.  I listen to her and if I'm feeling gracious, I laugh at her nine-year-old obsessiveness.  If I'm tired of hearing all these same conjectures time and time again, I don't laugh and instead, I tell her abruptly one more time about the concept of a postal tracking number.  And then I tell her not to talk about it anymore for today and a fairy-tale mother's smile does not light up my saintly face.

But really, she's so cute.  And she's learning so much.  I love her more - much more - than I love myself and I'm so pleased that it's me God has chosen to show her how to grow to be a patient shopper and so much more.  What a beautiful duty.  What a blessed woman.
I have a good dad.  He's not flashy, but then, he doesn't value flash.  There is something about his non-flashiness that defines him, that settles deep within him an intrinsic sense of pride, I imagine.  He's from Alberta and lives there for most of the year, barring the four very coldest months, in which he flees to the balmier days and golf courses  Arizona has to offer. 

The fact that he is an Albertan means something here, in this sketch.  He has the humility of an Albertan, the common sense of an Albertan.  He always knows what to do should Nature conspire against you to dump massive amounts of snow down upon you.  He owns all the tools that could ever be necessary under these, and countless other circumstances.  There is no one better to rely on and he proves that your faith isn't misplaced time and time again through the simple living out of his life.  He's just always there and it makes him feel good to ease your load through life.  That's how he shows love - by easing your load.  He doesn't want to carry your load for you, mind, for that would be robbing you of opportunities to grow your character.  As frustrating as I found this penchant of his while right smack dab in the middle of the Selfishness that was my teen years, I admire the wisdom of it, here and now.  Now that my own state of parenthood defines me to some extent, I understand that even though it's often just easier to carry that load for one's children, the way of truth dictates that we show them how it's done and then do what we can to ease it while they do the actual carrying for themselves.  The difference between the two I now know to be miles and miles.  And perhaps even lightyears.

My Dad, cliche though it may be, is a rock.  When he's there, everything feels settled and safe.  My Dad doesn't live under the burden of a fear of what mankind may think of him.  He's eminently whole and has nothing to prove.  You can see that he likes himself and that he lives by all the little truisms he used to say to me.  Things like if you don't have anything nice to say, then maybe you shouldn't say anything at all.  I disliked it when he used to staunch the flow of some unkindness coming out of my mouth about another person with that little ditty.  Now I understand that our mouths and what we let come out of them shape our hearts.  The way we allow ourselves to speak about people directly shapes what we believe about those same people.  My Dad is a wise man.

When I think back upon my childhood and moments with my Dad, I think of crawling in under the afghan on the couch downstairs with him as he watched hockey.  I hated hockey, but I loved my Dad, and the hockey ensured that he'd stay still for a minute so that I could snuggle with him.  I think of Old Dutch BBQ chips and French salad dressing.  In my mind, these things were Dad's.  As were macaroni and tomatoes.  Mac and Cheese was reserved for the realm of Mom. 

My Dad is as different from me as day is from night, but I honor and cherish him.  I admire him a great deal.  I'm proud of him and love it when he comes to visit me so that I can parade him around to my friends.  He is a beautiful man who doesn't talk nearly so much as I do.  He values relationship highly and any one of you could confidently trust him with your life.  There's no doubt that he's often bewildered by me and by the verbal hurricane that I  (and mine) represent, but I think that some elemental thing within each of us knows that within the heart and soul of the other, lies a small version of home.
It's now time to scoot the kids away from the kitchen so that I can begin  the day's dinner preparations.  The noisy, life-filled kitchen draws them, though, and scooting them is  substantially easier said than done.  They love the kitchen.  For one, the family laptop permanently resides here and for another, here is where all the people are.  My kids are not of that - to me - enigmatic ilk where they like to spend quiet time off alone in their respective bedrooms.  They like to be in the same room as the rest of the family, which while sweet and from their mother's biased perspective, endearing, is also a big pain in her blankedy-blank at times.  I love to cook, but not while eight thousand people pepper me with questions and anecdotes all at the same time.  And it frequently feels like eight thousand. 

We don't have television and contrary to what most people think when they  first hear of this oddity of ours, we didn't make that decision due to a brittle insistence on sitting on our resoundingly superior moral high horses.  Initially we were just too poor to swing cable financially and found that we really liked the resulting lifestyle that came along with no TV.  That's it.  Mind you, now that I've been without it for nearly eighteen years, I find that I'm frequently shocked at what is on television these days.   (Alotta pretty overt hoochy going on out there, I note sqeamishly.)  Anyway, it is during my daily dinner preparation times where I secretly wish for TV.  I don't say it out loud, though, because I'm loathe to create an issue where none now exists.  Not one of the kids has yet ever requested "channels," (as the Littles call it) but when  they do, we may have to reevaluate our choice then.

When our kids turn 12, they begin to prepare one dinner per week for the family, which I thought was a genius plan initially, but which has actually turned out to create a lot of upfront work for me.  I failed to factor in the fact that they were beginning with zero knowledge and that that knowledge wouldn't spring forth magically from a vacuum.  I remind them (or more accurately, just Anabel now, at this juncture) to choose their meals two weeks at a time and create the resulting grocery list, which because of their initial enthusiasm often features very exotic and difficult-to-find items.  Then of course I cook the loftily grandiose meal alongside them while showing them the different techniques.  Anabel is just now beginning to be able to do large chunks of the meal on her own.  I grit my teeth as we go and tell myself that I'm saving myself a lot of work in the long run.  I find that we make far more exotic and time-consuming meals this way because of her excitement than I'd normally be inclined to do.  Anabel makes things like Chicken in Phyllo and Gourmet Mac and Cheese (her personal favorite) and lazily perusing cookbooks has become one of her very favorite activities.  So really it's a win, albeit a very time and energy consuming one.

Most days of the week, we have evening activities.  For those of you so bored to find yourself interested, Mondays is youth group and piano lessons.  Tuesday is also youth group.  Wednesdays are guitar.  Thursdays are currently swim lessons and then there's the blessed release from the Have-To's over the weekend.  I've always been very strident about not scheduling formal children's activities over the weekend, though I know that many families do and are consequently even busier than we are.  However, our weekends are now full with sleepovers and birthday parties and Valentine's parties and Easter parties for kids.  Two of our four are now of the age where it doesn't just seem to be birthday parties anymore.  A sad new phenomenon I note in our lives is that we are often separated into divergent groups on weekends now.  I'm off doing an errand with a kid or two and JoyBoy is driving someone else to a bowling party and since there are six of us, life has shaken down where it feels a lot simpler for us to divide and conquer.  I think back fondly of the days where if one of us had something to do, the rest of us would naturally accompany.  We did family activities more, like trips to the zoo or Science World.  Now it seems that we all have impossibly full social calendars that take the emphasis off of family and on to friends.  Inevitable, I suppose, but it saddens me nonetheless.

Fewer times a week than I'd have thought proper before having these real, live, fleshy little creatures in my life, (a paltry three-ish) I bathe Oliver and Lucy.  Because we have only a single soaker tub in our house, my el-cheapo nature insists that they always be bathed in multiples of twos.  Not together any  longer, mind you, they'd never have that.  Along those lines, a refrain of Don't look at my bum! meets my amused ears tonight as I gear Oliver up for his plunge.  As hard as it may be for you to believe, I answer, looking at your bum isn't my primary goal for tonight.  Yes, it is!  Looking at my bum is your hobby!  he bellers out triumphantly in return.  He's at the age where the more frequent the references to bums, the happier his little heart feels.  He always asks for what we've come to term 'the business bath.'  This means a quick dip where one is rapidly soaped and shampooed up and then out.  I always say yes and without fail, he always changes his mind once in.  The allure of the warm, soapy water and the empty shampoo and bubble bath bottles I save to just this end are more than he can resist.   They, along with his little black motor boat sing their siren call.  I have to bring things to a close for when it is Lucy's turn.  He grouses a bit and laughs and insists again that no one look at his bum.  I clean his ears, though conventional wisdom says I should not, and in the blink of an eye, he's in his long-john-type Paul Frank pajamas that make him look younger and so cute that the image makes my eyes sting.  And then it's my Lucy-girl's turn.  She knows that she'll just love her bath because that's how Lucy approaches life.  She just knows she'll love everything.  She comes, carefully prepared and armed with her little family of mermaids.  There are two babies and a Mommy mermaid who come to chat  and swim merrily with her as she soaks her little nine-year-old body.  There are long moments of swooshing her own hair back and forth as she's magically transformed into a mermaid herself.  I know these fantasies.  I once had them too.  I remember our old blue bathtub that was perfect for transitioning from regular old life in my regular old bathroom to the translucent majesties of queenly life underwater.  I watch my little girl, swooshing obliviously, and I am so happy for her.  I delight in her carefree little mermaid life.
During the day, I putter and I putter.  The novelty of silence after nearly fourteen years of constant noise and action still hasn't worn off for me.  For the first two months of having all four kids in school for the duration of a full school day, I didn't even listen to music, so lovely to me was this near-mystic silence.  The silence seeps into my pores, it sometimes feels.  When I run, I've even taken occasionally to turning off my Ipod.  I drink in the quiet as I vacuum, as I clean the toilets.  These toilets are - thankfully - quite clean, given the fact that boys use them.   A brilliant friend and mother to four boys once told me once I'd given birth to Jude, that she taught her boys to pee sitting down from day one and highly recommended the practice.  I followed suit and have blessed her in my heart countless times since. 

Mondays are my go-hard-at-cleaning days and I enjoy these days.  Cleaning feels therapeutic to me.  The ordering of my external world allows me to rest peacefully inside my head.  This careful orchestration of the world around me allows me to knit later on after dinner.  It allows me to read for an hour or so before bed at night.  It calms me.  I do have to sometimes remind myself, though, that my children won't remember my clean floors in years to come, or if they do, it probably won't be in glowing, fond memory form.  They will, however, remember that I took them out to Starbucks for some not-oft-had one-on-one time together, or that I took 20 minutes out of my day to play Uno or Skip-Bo with them.  These are the lessons that I learn and then have to relearn over and over again because at times I am so thick.

I run or do an exercise class or even the Wii several times a week, mainly for the joy of it, but also to combat my ever-threatening-to-expand arse.  I'm not one of those girls mercifully blessed with a transcendent metabolism, but I've learned a long time ago to stop griping about it.  And so I exercise.

I meet a girlfriend for a daytime coffee or something one or two mornings a week, though I can't quite stifle a feeling of growing guilt about it.  My brain is  hard-wired to task accomplishment.  However, I know that healthy people are in relationship with lots of other healthy people and so I continue to prioritize these dates and love them.  I've been blessed with some unusually wonderful women in my life, as I think I've mentioned.

I write for an hour or two each weekday.  I entertain deeply mixed feelings about the practice.  While I enjoy it very much for the most part, there are times when I wonder if I'm wasting my time in a colossal way.  Who knows if this book will ever see the light of day?  But I press on, because I know if I don't, I'll regret it for the rest of my life.  Today I began page 81.  I feel in my bones that I'm a writer.  I feel fully me when I do it.  I feel complete and engaged in an invigorating way.  Whether or not I'm to be a published writer is the big question.  Sometimes I hate what I've written, sometimes I love what I've written.  Sometimes, for the life of me, I can't think of a single thing to write about.  Perhaps this is normal, but I guess that isn't the point.  And so I press on.

Before I know it, it's time to pick up the kids.  When I think of it, I feel a happy anticipation to see them again.  Afterschool, they are brimming over with energy.  They compete aggressively to share about their respective days.  My four little extroverts.   Each day we talk about what our day's number score is (A ten is an obviously perfect day.  Anabel's and Oliver's days are most often tens.  Lucy is usually either a nine or a ten and our Jude - ever working toward being that 'glass half full' kind of guy - is normally at a seven or an eight.). Then we talk about what our High/Low is.  This is - it probably goes without saying - the best and the worst thing that happened to us that day.  The kids eat their snack and then it's homework and musical instrument practice time (guitar for my pre-teen Adonis and piano for my little ladies).  This is my second busiest, but one of the happiest times of my day.  Their joy fuels me and gives me courage to try to be my best for them, for they surely deserve that and far more, lovely little noisy people. 
1 cup steel cut oats
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup pecans (or other nuts)
4 cups water (or a water/milk combo)
1/8 cup brown sugar (or agave syrup)
1 T butter
1/4 tsp salt
2 tsp vanilla
3 (or more) tsp cinnamon
2 (or more) cups chopped apple or pear

Spray the inside of your slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray.  Combine all ingredients in the slow cooker and mix well.  Cover and turn on LOW setting and cook overnight.  Stir well before serving.

There are a thousand things that seep together to comprise my day.  I didn't realize that when I took on the mantle of 'Mom' to a family of six, I'd be requiring and using - essentially - the skill set of a CEO.  I'm in charge of the smooth running of many lives and if I'm on my game, I'm inspiring them daily to become better people.

My alarm goes off at 6:45, though I know I'd be a better person if I made that 5:45 and went for my runs then.  I lug myself out of bed, turn up the furnace and check the weather online.  I then proceed to make breakfast for the kids and if I'm really organized that day, it's a simple matter of dishing out the hot cereal that's been simmering in the crockpot for the past nine hours.  The house smells better that way and it's the kids' favorite breakfast.

I then go to the different bedrooms and wake them up.  Their differing wake-up styles makes me laugh.  Lucy and Oliver are almost always awake and reading  in their beds already, though if they're not, they wake immediately and energetically.  Anabel is slower, but positive and lovely.  Jude takes eons.  He almost always requires a massage in order to maintain a positive mindset.  This is the only time of day where this boy is inclined toward grouchiness and probably wrongly, I treat him with kid gloves and willing hands devoted to long minutes of rubbing my grouchy boy's back.  Finally they're all up and dressed and meet in the kitchen for breakfast where they take their vitamins and chat and eat.

I do Lucy's and Oliver's hair as they sit on our high kitchen island chairs.  Jude and Anabel no longer require this service of me.  My repertoire is no longer sufficient, which frankly, is no surprise.  The hair stylist within me rarely sees the light of day.

We then proceed to rush around at what feels like a frenetic pace, Job Charts in hand for the Littles, and 'we' do 'our' morning duties.  I still have to brush the Littles' teeth, for if I don't, it's a nasty surprise for all those who they come into close contact for the rest of their days.  Let's just say that being thorough isn't their primary consideration for when brushing their own teeth.  Speed is more the nature of the game as far as these seven and nine year olds are concerned.

I swap mornings and afternoons with my carpool partner.  If I'm on my two-week stint of mornings, we're in a rush and if I ever struggle with impatience in life (and I do), it's during this mad morning rush.  We have our litterless lunches to shepherd into backpacks, freshly washed gym strip to pack, planners to sign and record individual reading times from the night previous, hole-less socks to place on little feet (and not-so-little feet), breakfast dishes to put in the dishwasher (though honesty dictates that I let you know that they rarely make it there and usually settle somewhere near the kitchen sink), cheques and permission forms to sign and carefully pack so that they don't go away to that mysterious Land of lost-essential-I-must-have-it-signed-and-turned-in-immediately items, preteen boy bodies to shower (subsequent nagging regarding the towel thrown haphazardly on the floor afterward is almost inevitable), teen girl outfits to choose (because it must be an outfit that no one else on the planet has ever once conceived, and should include, if possible, an apron or a tunic covered in pigs) , and breath to smell.  If some brilliant one among you has developed a more effective plan than the smelling of potentially stinky breath to check for tooth-brushing effectiveness, do tell.  In the meantime, I smell.  And I sometimes cringe.

I beller out my standard line, Jackets and shoes on! in a mystery tune whose origins I'm no longer sure of.  There are four pairs of shoes and four jackets hurredly put on in a hodge-podge flurry of activity as I do so.  On a really successful day, mittens and scarfs and hats are also donned.  We then proceed to pick up our carpool friend and make our way to the middle school, where both Anabel and Jude go to spend their days.  Next is the elementary school where a drop-off is taboo (And frankly, not welcomed by me, either.  I love to hang and chat with the moms who are also there waiting for the teachers to open the doors to welcome our Littles).  And then - and only then - I can heave a sigh of relief for my more pressing duties for the morning are now complete.

Anabel's very talented friend just took this photo of my girl.  Isn't it gorgeous?
We had - as we most often do - my husband's extended family over for Christmas dinner.  Even though the two-days' work of it beforehand sometimes feels a bit prohibitive, once they all arrive - noisy, laughing masses of them - it all feels well worth it. 

The kids have all grown up to an age where they're almost entirely independent and so we adults are freed up to selfishly pursue our own less infantile (or so we tell ourselves) interests.  Long moments of huddling over toddler -sized plates, painstakingly cutting up bits of turkey so they  no longer pose choking hazards, characterize these times together no longer.  The youngest in the group is my very own Oliver, who is a great, big, self-sufficient seven and who runs around frantically, shirt-tail sweatily untucked, with the very best of them.

There were 22 of us gathered together and to say that we were loud is a ludicrous understatement.  We aggressively clamored for conversational preeminence.  Once achieved, that heady position was almost instantly again stolen by the next extrovert.

The kids played pool, ping-pong and fooseball.  They chased one another around and basked in the delicious warm of spending long chunks of unscheduled time with not-oft-seen cousins.  It made me feel a stab of happy watching them enjoy themselves so much.  They didn't even seem to need the atrocious culinary excess to fulfill all their Christmas dreams in the way we adults most markedly did.  We ate till we felt sick and asked one another in a turkey-induced daze, "why would I do that to myself?"  And then we had dessert.

We had a white elephant gift exchange, which was the brain-child of my very clever sister-in-law.  We were allowed three steals per gift and it was a lot of fun.  I also loved that it didn't contribute to yet more excess, and in fact, allowed us to do some intentional regifting to those whom we felt would be more suitable recipients of the 'goods' we had on hand.

In a fit of Christmas generosity, I want to share a new-to-me recipe that a friend passed along this year.  Though to call this a vegetable requires a great deal of eye squinting and even some intentional misleading., we ate and loved this trashy little number this year.  It is the o-so-lofty and elegant sounding:

Sweet Potato Souffle

2 cups cooked, mashed sweet potato
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup evaporated milk
2 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. cinnamon

Beat together.  Bake 30-45 minutes at 350 degrees Celcius until set in a shallow, buttered casserole dish.  Sprinkle with topping and return to oven for 10-15 minutes longer before serving. 

Topping (mix together in a small bowl):

1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped nuts
3/4 cup rice krispies

Anabel would momentarily cringe if she saw my gleeful use of the word 'teenybopper' in reference to her sweet self.   I remind myself of my Dad in the way that I find delicious the act of feigning to use the teen lingo, but doing so incorrectly on purpose.  She seems quite a bit more whole than I felt at that age, but I can tell that this newfound little guilty joy of mine still stretches her a bit.  Unfortunately, though, she's adapting quickly and the JoyBoy and I are having to be extra creative in keeping it fresh. 

Just the other day, when JoyBoy began to dance in front of Anabel and her 14-year-old friend in our kitchen, we were discouraged/encouraged to see her immediately join in.  Healthy for her, yes, but deflating for the parent who was giddily seeking the teenaged cringes.  Here are - for your viewing pleasure - some shots of some real, live dancing.  The afro features prominently, as I'm sure I don't need to point out.