family fun · Holidays Jewish and holidays not. · Jewy goodness · Kids · waxing philosophical · what's cookin'

Day 186: A Different New Year

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins at sundown today. Normally our family would celebrate with festive meals with the extended family, and five-hour-long services at synagogue (there were always kids’ programs, babysitting, and breakout sessions too.) This year synagogue services aren’t happening in the same way and we’re not even at home; so what are we going to do?

Here’s what I’ve planned:

Friday Night
We’ll have the usual festive meal (minus the extended family) with round challahs, kiddush over the wine (or grape juice,) and sweet foods (for a sweet new year.) We bought five different types of honey from a local honey farm, so we’ll have a honey tasting and see which one is the family favourite. We’ll also have a game that relies on puns and randomly selected foods to create blessings or wishes for the new year. Some ideas I’ve got so far:

  • Peas (May this year bring us world peas)
  • Turnip (May the right opportunities turnip for you this year)
  • Root vegetables (May you have lots of people rooting for you this year)
  • Grapes (May we all have a grape year)
  • Tomatoes (May you be able to say ‘I feel good from my head tomatoes‘)

You get the idea. It’s corny, and the kids will love it — N especially grooves on word play.

Saturday
We’ll do a few of the Rosh Hashana-specific prayers, including the one on which the Leonard Cohen song “Who by Fire?” is based (and yes, we’ll teach the kids “Who by Fire?”). We’ll discuss one of the Rosh Hashanah Torah readings, probably the one about Akeidat Yitzhak, the “Binding of Isaac.” We’ll bake, decorate, and enjoy a birthday cake for dessert (because in the prayer service we read, “Hayom harat olam,” which has sometimes been interpreted as “Today is the birthday of the world”), and I anticipate reading all of our Rosh Hashana storybooks.

Sunday
I’ve planned to go hiking at a nearby waterfall. We’ll do tashlich (a ceremony in which we symbolically cast our sins away) with water-soluble paper; we can each write or draw what we want to cast off this year and then watch it dissolve as soon as it touches the water. Another possibility is to write it on leaves using wet-erase markers so that the leaf is washed clean in the river, a play on “turn over a new leaf.” I’ll also blow the shofar over the lake in the morning, and maybe again at the waterfall. We’ll end with havdallah and a campfire.


On a more personal level, I’ve been reflecting on the changes we’ve seen in the past year and what possibilities I want to embrace in the coming year.

I want my life to be joyful when possible, purposeful otherwise, and always intentional. I don’t want to wait til the end of the year to evaluate and change course. If something doesn’t work for me (or for us as a family,) I hope I’ll have the courage to change it.

I’m raising my expectations this year: we should all be able to thrive, and if we’re not, something needs to change. Since the schools closed in March I’ve seen all of my children thrive in ways they hadn’t before. None of us should just be passing the time between waking and going to bed.

I want to express my gratitude more, and in ways that are more evident to my children. I am deeply grateful for everything I’ve been given in life — I certainly didn’t earn it! — and I want them to see and understand the world that way too.

On the physical plane, I will give my body more of what it needs: adequate sleep (we’ve been getting 9 hours a night up at the cottage and I feel great,) food that nourishes me and makes me feel good, and exercise to keep me strong and healthy.


I wish all of my readers, Jewish and not, celebrating and not, a sweet and good year (even if not necessarily happy) in good health. May you have everything you need and most of what you want.

See you next year!

family fun · Kids · water you paddling?

Day 184: One September Summer Day

First things first: I was so busy enjoying today that I forgot about E being my guest author until after she was in bed. My apologies. I’ll try to remember tomorrow, when the temperature drops to 12 from 24.

It was windy today, so in the shade it didn’t feel so warm. On the dock it was a different story: the sun was bright and hot all day long. I dragged the kids out of the house. “Whatever you’re doing,” I said, “you can do it on the dock. We won’t get another day like this.” While they did each other’s hair, read books, and played, I lay on a lounge chair in my bathing suit and read a trashy novel. It was perfect.

The day was so (relatively) warm that I agreed to go swimming with the kids, even though I knew the lake would be freezing cold. It was painfully cold, not refreshing, and we all started to turn purple after about ten minutes, but we made the best of it by running up the hill from the lake to jump into the hot tub.

I managed to convince N (who wasn’t keen on kayaking since last week’s fiasco) and Mr. December (who prefers canoeing) to try kayaking today. After they’d both had their turns, K and I went out together and spent half an hour charging into the oncoming waves. As I sit here right now I can still feel the up-and-down sensation; if I closed my eyes I could convince myself I was still out on the water.

Essentially, today was exactly what I’d hoped most of our days would be this month. We might get another, or we might not, but at least we had today.

blogging · family fun · Kids · water you paddling? · what's cookin'

Day 183: Waves

I’ve come to understand that temperature is really only one element of a “nice day.” It was probably about 19 degrees today, but the wind was strong and the lake was rough, so it wasn’t the idyllic day on the dock that I had hoped for.

In some ways it was better, though. K, my sensory-seeking kid who loves swings, spinning around, and trampolining, decided to try taking a kayak out on the waves. We went together, paddling ferociously towards the waves and cheering when our kayaks went over the crest of a wave and crashed, bow first, into the next one. We felt so alive… and so very, very wet.

So now I have a partner in crime who will sneak away with me anytime to go kayaking on a rough lake. That’s a good thing.

My in-laws visited us today, which was a lovely break from our usual routine. I dropped them and the kids off at the park so I could drive to the supermarket two towns over. The twenty minutes of alone time in the car was a much-needed reprieve from being with people all the time.

Driving is a treat up here. I love driving, but not sitting in traffic, so I try to avoid driving in Toronto. But here when I turn onto the road, there’s this long stretch of road ahead of me. If there are other cars they’re moving along at the speed limit (or just above it.) Navigating a grid of straight highways isn’t as much fun as driving on the winding roads in rural Pennsylvania, but it’s very pleasant — especially when the soundtrack is by Great Big Sea instead of Great Big Complainypants Kids.

We had a late barbecue lunch (including brownies my MIL baked for us) which left most of us with no desire for dinner; but by 7:30, I heard discontented rumblings about hunger and bedtime snacks. Half an hour later I was pulling homemade tea biscuits out of the oven. With Skyr (instead of clotted cream) and blueberry jam, they hit the spot. The children sat around the table munching and listening to me as I read aloud from The Weighty Word Book. I’ve since sent them to bed (with the requisite arguments about who’s sleeping where with whom) and am finishing my own tea while I write this post.

And now a teaser for tomorrow: E will be my guest author (she’ll dictate to me and I’ll faithfully type everything she says.) She’s writing a book about the adventures of her favourite stuffed animals, Chickaletta and Bubbles, and would like to share a few pages of it with my readers. You really don’t want to miss this. It’s adorable.

While we’re up here vacillating between ennui and excitement, some of my readers are affected by the fires in the western United States. According to my brother, the air quality in Vancouver is awful now, and friends in Toronto have said that the hazy sky there has been attributed to the fires. Wherever you are, dear readers, I hope you are safe and healthy.

family fun · Kids · waxing philosophical

Day 182: Bubbles

Today was better.

It might have been because the sun was shining, or maybe because we went out in the canoe to explore an uninhabited island. It might have been the fact that I had a plan for the day.

Most likely, though, it was the bubbles. It’s impossible to feel bummed when soap bubbles are involved; even more so when the bubbles are the size of a watermelon.

This morning, after breakfast, I pulled out one of the project books I had brought along with us and showed the kids the page titled “Giant Bubbles.” Appointing N the potioneer-in-chief, I stepped back and watched them mix warm water, corn starch, glycerine, baking powder, and dish soap according to the instructions. I helped E make bubble wands out of dowels, metal washers, and string.

Finally, an hour later, we stood on the dock and tried to create giant bubbles. There were mostly failures, and then suddenly there was a huge bubble that stayed intact. It floated on the breeze and then descended toward the water. “This is it,” I thought to myself, “it’s gonna pop.” It didn’t. Instead it bounced off the surface of the lake and floated upwards again, a wobbling globe of rainbow colours.

It’s hard to say who was more enchanted by the bubbles, the kids or I. We stayed on the dock for an hour, gradually peeling off layers of clothing in the hot sun, and worked on replicating that first bouncing bubble. Eventually we got the hang of it; but even after dozens of successful bubbles, it never got boring. We only stopped because it was lunchtime.

Our collective mood changed for the better today. Whether it was the element of the unexpected (which bubble will pop? which one will last beyond the next dock over?) or just the sense of beauty and delight the bubbles inspired that did it, I don’t know. I also don’t care. Bubbles are magical; and whose vacation can’t benefit from a little more magic?

family fun · Keepin' it real · Kids · waxing philosophical · whine and cheese

Day 181: The summer break of our discontent

You know how they say that planning a vacation is more enjoyable than actually taking that vacation? They’re right. Although that could just be because this vacation kind of sucks.

There. I said it.

True, we’ve had a couple of great day trips. And there was a day, maybe a day and a half, where the weather was warm and swimming was fun. But it feels like a lot of our time here is spent moping around the place doing nothing. This is not how I pictured a month at the cottage.

I was probably operating on the assumption that the kids would want to play in the sand at the water’s edge, that the water would be a comfortable temperature for swimming, and that we’d spend the days on the dock, reading our books in the sun. I imagined giving my kids a few small lessons on paddling technique and then exploring the shoreline. I certainly didn’t expect how windy it would be here; and Mr. December and I both seem to have forgotten that “high of 23” doesn’t mean it’s 23 degrees all day long, but that it will hit 23 degrees sometime between 1 and 2 p.m., and otherwise it’ll be more like 17.

I’m trying to be phlegmatic about the whole thing: some days are good, others are less so. I often tell the kids that boredom is good for them: maybe it will be. I’m trying to figure out things to do that will make our time up here feel worthwhile. But Mr. December goes back to work (online, remotely) tomorrow and his one week of vacation has been rife with whining, complaining, and sneezing (did I mention that I forgot to ask the owners whether their cottage was pet-free? It wasn’t, three of us have allergies, and I spent much of last week vacuuming everything I could.) I feel vaguely guilty about that.

Mr. December has always been keener than I on the idea of planning and scheduling our free time. It’s something I generally do under duress — it does not come naturally to me to make a timetable of how we’re spending every hour of our weekend, and yet I made the effort to do it every week until COVID hit. Let me be clearer: planning our free time goes against my grain and rubs me entirely the wrong way… and yet I try to do it.

The notion that we couldn’t manage to entertain ourselves at a house on a lake, with a dock and watercraft and a fire pit, seemed absurd to me two weeks ago. Now I know better. R has started asking to go home. We’ve said no, because Rosh Hashana is next weekend and we want the kids to be with us. But every time she asks I’m tempted to say, “Only if I can go too.” If it weren’t for the fact that the rest of our stay here is non-refundable, I’d probably start packing up to leave.

Of course, it might be sunny and bright tomorrow and I’ll be back to rhapsodizing about the magic of getting kids out in nature. We’ll just have to wait and see.

family fun · Jewy goodness · well *I* think it's funny...

Day 180: Ask the 8-Ball

“Am I going to have a fun time at the cottage?”

As I see it, yes.

I only realized after they found it here at the cottage that my kids have never seen a Magic 8-Ball before. They crowded around it, asking all kinds of mundane and fantastical questions.

“Will I be alive in the year 3000?”

Signs point to yes.

They’re adorably serious about it. N likes to close his eyes, put the 8-ball to his forehead, and focus on his question. Then he shakes it violently before checking the answer.

“Is ‘Scrambled Eggs’ a good name for a chicken who looks like scrambled eggs?”

Definitely yes.

I don’t quite understand its appeal. It’s a novelty, isn’t it? Doesn’t that mean that the appeal should wear off? It hasn’t. A week into our time here, they’re still asking the 8-ball every question that crosses their minds.

“Will I start to become my dream self on this trip?”

Definitely yes.

Mr. December and I aren’t exempt from its pronouncements:

“Will Abba ever grow up?”

Don’t count on it.

I got into the spirit tonight and decided to see if the 8-ball knew better than I did. Disappointingly, it totally dodged the question.

“Will K clean up after dinner?”

Better not tell you now.

If not now, when? I can already answer the question myself. We finished eating forty-five minutes ago; the food and dishes are still on the table. Will K clean up? Decidedly no.

(Note: It wasn’t K’s job to clean up after dinner. I was just hoping she’d think it was.)


I find myself thinking about what the 8-Ball might say if it was marketed towards an “ethnic” audience. Is there a Jewish 8-Ball that answers your questions with more questions?

“Hey 8-ball, am I going to have a good time here?”

I should know?

Every good writer should do their research, so I turn to Google. My search reveals that I’m obviously not the first person to think of this. There’s a “Jewish Wisdom Ball” that answers questions with answers like “Feh”, “You call that a question?” and “You should be so lucky!”

“Hey, Jewish Ball of Wisdom, is this a good blog post?”

Better you shouldn’t ask.

Sounds about right. I know what my kids are getting this Hannukah.

family fun · Homeschool · Independence · Kids · parenting

Day 179: Cliff Hangers (and hangers-back)

You guys, we climbed a cliff today. For real.

We took a day trip to Bruce’s Caves Conservation area. It was over an hour-long drive, but once we got out of the car and onto the trail, the excitement began. There were boulders of all sizes, many covered in moss, dotting the forest floor. E ran into the woods yelling, “EVERYBODY CLIMB EVERYTHING!”

Even she didn’t know how right she was.

When we got to the caves we wandered around until K and R saw a ledge they wanted to sit on. Mr. December held a flashlight for them while they climbed up. One by one we joined them, until we were all on the ledge. Then R wanted to get down and keep going farther from where we’d come in.

At first we were just checking out what was behind the ledge. They we “had to” climb a particularly fun-looking boulder. Almost before I knew it, we were scrambling up the edge of the cliff, using tree roots and cracks in the rocks as handholds. Finally we made it to the top.

The Bruce Trail runs along the top of the cliff, so we hiked along it for a while. Then when we turned around, Mr. December encouraged the kids to find a way down from the cliff. R and K shared leadership duties, taking turns scouting out the best route. Mr. December and I hung back to watch their decision-making process; and when we all got back to the main trail at the bottom of the cliff, we told them that they would lead us back to the car, too.

R and K made a very sensible decision: we’d walk back to the mouth of the cave, since they knew for sure how to get back to the car from there. Back we trekked. The kids ran back into the cave and started climbing, and Mr. December and I sat outside the cave and waited for them.

I have to tell you that there were moments during that hike where my heart was in my mouth and I wanted to scream, “STOP!!!” Although I talk a lot about letting kids take risks and get hurt, I’m generally thinking of city life and the miniscule risks children can take in their own neighbourhoods, like climbing up a too-tall slide or walking to the store alone to buy some milk. It was a lot harder for me to sit on my hands and bite my tongue when the risks were much greater and there was a real danger of tumbling fifty feet into a crevasse.

And yet the experience was so much more powerful because the danger was real. The hike wasn’t restricted only to the beaten path; there were no signs telling you not to climb the rocks; and there were no ropes or railings along the cliff’s edge. The obstacles were natural, real, and we conquered them. The kids planned, scouted, chose their approach, and then led us through it.

It was a powerful exercise in trust and leadership, one that I hope made as much of an impact on the kids as it did on me. If I had to have one takeaway from today, though, it’s this:

We climbed an actual, honest-to-goodness cliff. This family is so badass.

family fun · Kids · parenting

Day 178: Forcing Them is Worth It

More and more, I’m seeing that the kids almost never want to do things that involve effort. Going for a walk? Nah. Canoeing across the lake? No thanks. Go see a waterfall? Unless it’s right outside the window, nope.

It gets really old, always having to coerce them into doing things, yet we continue to do it because the alternative is doing nothing and going nowhere. It’s a good thing that every time we force them into an activity they end up loving it. Either they’re the most affable, happy-go-lucky kids in the world, or we know our kids well enough to pick activities they’ll love.

Today we drove a few minutes down the road to a conservation area that forms part of the Bruce trail. Getting them into the car was a chore and they argued and bickered all the way there and even at the beginning of the trail. There we were, standing in front of a gorgeous waterfall, and the kids were arguing about who got to hold the binoculars (I resolved that one by holding them myself.) I was rolling my eyes and wondering whether this hike would be worth all the effort.

Then I heard the bickering turn to excited chatter as we rounded a corner and found ourselves on the riverbank.

“Can we try crossing it, Eema? Can we?”

I was hesitant: the ground was wet, and I slipped and fell on the rocks while I was just standing there. Still, I make plenty of comments about how people should let their kids take real risks. Do I believe it or not? I capitulated and Mr. December added a caveat: “You guys are taking the risk that you might get wet or you might slip and fall.”

No sooner had he finished speaking than they were off. All four of my kids in a line, led by K (of course,) stepping from stone to stone and balancing on logs to get to the larger rocks in the middle of the river.

“It’s an obby!” R cheered repeatedly. For those of you without a clue, an “obby” is an obstacle-course type Roblox game. I wouldn’t have thought that a computer game could get them excited for being out in nature, but there we were.

I thought they’d get tired of their explorations quickly and we’d all continue hiking along the trail. Forty-five minutes later I accepted that I was mistaken. They made their way upriver by way of stones, logs, and tiny islands, and the only trail hiking we really did was on the way back to the car.

Did they get hurt? Not really. Did they get wet? In E’s case, her shoes were soaked and her pants were drenched to the knee. Everyone else ended up with wet sneakers. Any regrets? None.

It was an awesome morning once we made it through all the resistance and arguing. Next time I start questioning the wisdom of forcing the kids to go somewhere or do something, I’ll be able to look back at the pictures I took today and stand firm.

blogging · family fun · Homeschool · Keepin' it real · Kids

Day 177: Well, *I* had fun…

It was cold here today — 15 degrees celsius cold — so of course we stayed inside for much of the day. By eleven a.m., I was itching to do something other than sitting around in the cottage reading. I proposed a paddling excursion, which K and N both initially declined and R and E enthusiastically accepted. I decided not to let N beg off, so I offered him a deal: paddle now or paddle later. He chose now.

We bundled up on top: sweatshirts and rain jackets under our live vests. On the bottom half we wore shorts. I have to say, I was quite comfortable. R and N complained of the cold, and that was only the beginning of their complaints.

About 30 metres from the dock, R said her hands were hurting. I corrected her grip on the paddle, gave her some pointers, and encouraged her to keep going. We had a destination in mind: what I call the “tree graveyard,” a small inlet where there are tree trunks and stumps under the water. It’s beautiful and R wanted to see it, but she was stopping every couple of minutes to massage her hands. N complained that we were moving too slowly, and when I finally got us going more quickly, he turned his kayak to face away from us and stopped paddling. He did that repeatedly over the hour that we were on the water.

A photo taken on a slightly less grey day.

It wasn’t all complaints. R, N, and E all like to sing, which is a great way to keep paddling in rhythm, so we sang some rounds: the obvious “My Paddle Keen and Bright” first, and then a couple of songs we learned in choir at violin camp in summers past. For about fifteen minutes we were singing:

Black socks, they never get dirty
The longer you wear them, the blacker they get.
Sometimes I think I should launder them,
Something inside me says “don’t wash them yet!”
Not yet, not yet, not yet, not yet…

Mr. December and K caught up with us in the canoe. By this point R couldn’t paddle at all anymore, so we tied a rope to the front of her kayak and the back of mine. I towed her the rest of the way. Heading back from the tree graveyard N was mulishly stopping, covering his face with his hood, and refusing to respond when I spoke to him; I ended up towing him, too. It was a great workout.

Back at the shore, R did her best (which wasn’t very good) to pull her kayak up onto the sand. N didn’t even bother. He threw down his paddle, left his kayak floating between the rocks, and ran up to the cottage. I was not impressed. Later I learned that he was cold, tired, and frustrated; he hated the entire expedition. Not that it excused his behaviour, but at least I understand… sort of.

In a bid to do something special in the afternoon I baked banana bread (nobody was going to eat those spotted bananas anyway) and made some blueberry tea, then invited everyone to the table for poetry teatime. I expected some resistance but shouldn’t have; there was fresh banana bread on the line. Everyone else ate and drank while I read one Shel Silverstein poem after another, chosen by each child in turn.

Apparently I’m good at reading aloud, because I was then persuaded to read a few entries from The Weighty Word Book before I got up to prepare dinner (E and I are on K.P. today.) And then I made my escape, finally, out to the deck where I’m looking at the mist over the lake and typing this blog post to the sounds of raindrops and honking geese. The spitting rain doesn’t bother me, but my computer might not agree; I suppose it’s time to go inside and be a parent again.

community · DIY · el cheapo · family fun · Kids

Day 176: Putting the Crowd into Crowdsourcing

It’s been hard for K, being at the cottage. As much as she loves going off to her “secret” perch between the woods and the rocky shore, she hasn’t had any swings or her trampoline; and I think we all know that no swings and no trampoline make K go crazy.

We had resolved not to venture into the world outside the cottage until after the long weekend (who needs the crowds?) so today was the earliest we were willing to go out and find some swings for K. Last night saw me googling “playgrounds near me,” which led me to discover something really cool. In a handful of words: there’s an app for that.

The app is called “Playground Buddy,” and it’s free. When I opened it up it immediately found my location on a map, and then up popped the little green symbols — each one indicating a separate playground. As it turned out, there is a playground only six minutes’ drive from our cottage, and it was that one where K spent almost an hour swinging, the usual blissful expression on her face.

Playground Buddy - Helping Families Find Playgrounds

While the kids played I explored the app a bit more. It relies on crowdsourcing to fill in the details of each playground, so I took a bit of time to add a couple of photos and to check off the appropriate amenities for the park where we were. I did a little more scrolling around the map and found that most of the playgrounds lack even basic information, such as their names. Maybe the app is very new, or maybe most of its users are in a completely different part of the world. Either way, I felt good about my little contribution to the effort; so I looked for other playgrounds that I knew well enough to describe (actually, it asks for very little. Any detail you can add is great.)

Later on, I introduced the kids to the concept of crowdsourcing. “It’s really neat,” I said, “by sending in their own observations, people can create a treasure trove of helpful information for others.” I don’t think they needed the explanation as enticement — my phone is enticement enough — but my kids passed the phone around between them, trying to find parks they knew. R filled in details of the park near her former school, N updated the playground stats for the playground at the local public school, and E clicked “yes” or “no” for each amenity at our neighbourhood park as I read them aloud. All in all, we updated the information on seven playgrounds.

I wouldn’t have thought of updating this kind of app as “community service,” but maybe it is, in a way. We take a few minutes out of our day to share information with anyone who wants it. If I tried to list the number of things I learned about for free, on the internet, from material that was posted by ordinary people who just wanted to inform or share, I’d be here all night. Anytime I stop to think about it, I’m blown away by the generosity of spirit I’ve found on the internet; the many tutorials, patterns, instructions, and ideas that people share freely, even when there’s no compensation for their efforts.

Will the Playground Buddy app catch on? I don’t know — I have zero connection to it except as a user — but I hope so. It’s a great resource for tourists with kids and families that have just relocated. And if it really takes off, I may never have to google “playgrounds near me” again.