Dear blog…the healing journey discussion

In May, I wrote a post about making the decision that I was healthy and how that was a key moment in my journey to attain self-worth and love. My Mom, who subscribes to my blog (bless her heart), works for a local non-profit counselling organization and after reading that post, she asked me if I would lead an informal lunch-time discussion about it entitled “the healing journey.” To advertise it, she wrote an editorial in our local newspaper with a few details from my post.

I was touched and honored and extremely nervous. It took place Monday and when I arrived, I was a bit surprised by the demographics of the group. We had 10 people covering the ages from around 15 to 80 and everything in between. I guess the quest to heal knows no boundaries and I was instantly engaged and captivated by the group.

It was a wonderful opportunity (thanks Mom!). In sharing my story to open the discussion, others were able to open up about and share about themselves. It never ceases to amaze me how common all of our struggles are. I think we all believe we are alone or that no one would understand when in reality, I think we’d be shocked and surprised to know how many people, even those closest to us, feel the same way.

When I do these types of presentations, that is the greatest gift I think I pass along. It’s like a collective sigh of relief goes around the table as people realize “I am normal…I am not alone…she went through that to?!?!” And then the most amazing thing happens; strangers open up to one another in ways they normally wouldn’t (not even to their best friends or family) and they share…intimately, exposing their inner most fears and thoughts. And a group of total strangers bonds together and learns from each other.

It’s a most beautiful thing.

Ever opened yourself up to a group of strangers before? How did it feel? Why do you think you were able to?


Dear blog…will themes make my readers happy?

I was recently reading a blog post entitled, Give a Dry Blog New Life–The Power of Themes, by Kristen Lamb, about the need for author blogs (wanna-be and successful writers who blog about writing) to use themes to create a great blog. For example, Kristen blogs about craft on Monday, Twitter on Tuesday, Social Media on Wednesday and anything goes on Friday. Well, I am always interested in ideas on creating a great blog so I read on.

Kristen wrote that a great blog isn’t about content, it’s about creating connections. Bloggers connect through engaging topics that generate discussions and eventually all that discussion forges a community. And voila, une hugely successful blog!

I can’t argue with her logic. That sounds pretty reasonable. As I come up to my one-year anniversary of this blog in August, this prompted me to ask myself; am I achieving my goals? Are they the same as when I started? What do I want to get out of my blog?

I think my original idea was to use my blog as a creative outlet while drafting my first book simultaneously building my brand (and interest) as an author. I also wanted to write about my adventures in life, things I love, things that drive me nuts, and the little nuggets of wisdom I have learned and continue to learn….in the hopes of inspiring. In the end, I figured if you write…they will come read.

My stats tell me that I am currently at 90 posts, 199 comments (although some mine) and my blog “hits” are at 4,067 (again, who knows how many of those are my own?) So in a year in, is that reasonable success? I honestly don’t know.

I want to have a successful blog. But what does that mean…to me? Is it tons of comments, tons of followers, off-the-charts stats, lots of people linking to my posts? Readership and comments are definitely a part of the equation although if you asked me for numbers, I wouldn’t know exactly what they are.

But I think it goes deeper than that; a successful blog to me is one that I feel good about; that I know and feel like I write about topics that people find interesting, inspiring, infuriating, engaging…that connect with readers. I want people to come back over and over again because they can’t wait to see what I’ll write next. I want to build a successful blog that connects with others, that speaks to them, that resonates. And I want to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when I look over my blog.

When I review my blog content to date, it’s a bit of a mash-up of this and that. It feels a bit scattered brain. It’s a lot about my personal life, a bit on lessons learned in life, and a variety of general topics. There’s no definite rhyme or reason although I did try with categories. It seems to be more of a personal journal, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But how would readers interpret it? Does it engage and connect with them? And what would make them come back again and again; to hear an update on my dog? I am not so sure.

Ouch – whatever shall I do?

Kristen says that we should offer our readers a predictable schedule of content by applying a theme that helps bundle all kinds of topics together and offer the reader a sense of what to expect, yet at the same time afford the author tremendous flexibility. She says the trick to blogging for the long-haul is content that is refined, yet interesting and she suggests that themes will help me keep my content consistent yet fresh.

She wrote that themes shouldn’t corner me when it comes to topics. They should enable me to take in the world and package it in a way that informs, entertains or inspires. And she recommends that with each theme, I should brainstorm at least a hundred possible topics. If I can’t hit a hundred, I should try another theme.

Hmmmm???? Maybe that’s the missing ingredient? I know as of late, I’ve definitely struggled with consistency and feel a little like I am still searching for my blog “voice”. I guess I thought I’d have that hammered out by now. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have entirely although it’s coming slowly but in the meantime, I think my readership may be suffering because of it.

Maybe, after nearly a year of blogging, the questions I should ask myself are; what do I love to write about? What do I find “easy” to write about? What posts do I have a blast drafting? What posts seem to generate comments? What posts get the most hits, long after they are posted? What are readers telling me by what the visit and comment on?

Personally, I love writing about things that have changed my life and/or inspired me; things that wake me up and give me the “wow” factor whether it’s thoughts, feelings, realizations, experiences or books, blogs, quotes or movies; and things that really piss me off or frustrate me to no end…rants! And I love to sprinkle dashes of sarcasm or humor to either.

So with all that wonderful knowledge, how do I translate that into a theme or two that offers readers the structure they need while enabling me to be interesting and witty? I get the ideology but I am not sure I see exactly how to put it into practice….yet!

Never fear, help is near! Kristen actually teaches a workshop called “Blogging to Build Your Brand and Your Fan Base” where she has writers go through exercises to get a sense of their unique creative style; she helps them create a log-line that helps set the tone of the blog; and then works with them to mine their passions and interests for content to help them shape and plan their author blogs.

Fahhhbulous!! It’s $40 and runs through July. DANG!! I was thinking of signing up for it but with the dog’s surgery and pending “time intensive” physio (as described by the vet), I am not sure I will have the time to commit! Grrrr…priorities Natalie!  

Perhaps I’ll give implementation a whirl on my own with a focus on bringing my continually refining vision into reality; a successful, consistent, fresh blog featuring kick-ass content that keeps readers coming back for more!

What do you think makes a successful blog? Ever use themes or log-lines? What works for you for keeping it fresh and interesting?

Dear blog….I find the NB student loan application shocking…

The Dude graduates from high school this week. Proud moments!

If I haven’t already mentioned it, Scott’s son (we refer to him as “The Dude”) lives with us full-time and has since he was 14-years-old making Scott his primary custodial parent. The Dude’s mother lives about an hour away. And since Scott and I were married shortly after The Dude’s 17th birthday last year, I became an official “step-mom.”

Onward and upward, The Dude was accepted and plans to attend a great program at one of the universities within a 12 minute drive from our home. His tuition is going run him about $7500/year (not including books) for four years. Scott and I have been telling and advising him since Grade 9 that if university was his plan, that he best work, save and apply for scholarships because our contribution would be a roof over his head and food on the table; no cash donations coming from here. Both of us believe it’s something, as an adult, he should work for and earn himself. Not to mention, the kid’s got brains galore and could have gone full scholarship with a minimal amount of work…if he wanted…but I digress…

So, since The Dude hasn’t saved any of his pennies, he recently went through the process of applying for a student loan…which brings me to the crux of this post….As a “dependent” student (meaning he will live at home while going to school), his parents have to provide their financial information under the headings Parent 1 and Parent 2. Typically the parental financial information is used to determine if a student even qualifies for a student loan at all. If parents make too much money, kids can have issues qualifying. And parental finances are often used to calculate how much their “contribution” should be; affecting the total qualifying amount (another point I strongly disagree with but shall leave for another rant, another day).

Back to the point of this post….I was shocked and outraged by the new student loan forms. Check this out:

Financial Information: To be considered for all available federal and provincial programs, you are required to provide the amounts showing on the following line numbers of your parent’s 2010 Income Tax Return(s). If your parents are separated or divorced, the parent with whom you normally reside or who supports the majority of your living expenses is considered to be your custodial parent for the purpose of completing this application. Your custodial parent must complete this section. If your custodial parent remarried before you turned 18 years of age, or if your step-parent has legally adopted you, your step-parent’s income tax information is also required.

OK! Tell me this….what does MY FINANCIAL INCOME as The Dude’s step-parent have to do with how much he will qualify for a student loan? The Dude STILL has a biological mother who IS actually financially responsible for him. But, according to the student loan office, because he doesn’t live with her full-time she’s somehow considered OFF the hook and I am ON the hook for her kid because I married his father?

Shouldn’t it be his biological mother and father’s income that is taken into consideration? This is not a boy that I have legally adopted nor do I have any financial or legal responsibility to him in any way, shape or form. So why should my finances matter? Why am I now “Parent 2” on the application form in lieu of his mother? Just because he lives in my house?

Second of all, I must say, I was not comfortable or happy about disclosing my income to my step son. It’s none of his business quite frankly. Coupled with the fact that the split between his parents was NOT amicable and I do not want The Dude’s mother knowing my financial status; again none of her business. I can certainly ask The Dude to keep the deets to himself but….

Adding salt to the wound, there at the bottom it says “indicate any financial support you will receive from your non-custodial parent towards the cost of your study period”. Well now, isn’t that just quaint…his actual mother gets to “let them know” what she’s willing to contribute while they will TELL not only my husband, but now ME, what we are “supposed” to contribute? Wouldn’t you think this would be a more appropriate question for a STEP PARENT to complete? And what about his other step parent – his mother’s husband – so I am on the hook and he isn’t even part of the equation?

And in the end, whether I contribute or not to The Dude’s post secondary education, as my step son, it should be my decision and mine alone. My husband and I don’t mix our finances; we share our living costs but we both work and earn our OWN pennies and we do with them as we each individually see fit.

I am frustrated with the system. I don’t think it’s fair to the students applying. The Dude gets screwed because his father married a woman who makes great money….nice. WTF?

Shouldn’t it be, if any at all, The Dude’s biological parents’ income that is taken into consideration, regardless of which he lives with?  

To that point, I am still at a loss why parental income even appears on an ADULT’S student loan application for post secondary education. The Dude is 18 years old. If he wants to go to university, as an adult, isn’t it on him? Will he still be asking for our financial information if he’s 27, living at home doing his Master’s? And, if The Dude didn’t live at home, it would all be a moot point. So what does it matter to the student loan application if he has a parent who is willing to give him a roof over his head or not? Let alone anyone else….step parent, grandparent, aunts and uncles etc…

Do you think parents, and step parents, should be obligated to contribute financially to their children/step children’s university education?

Should step parents’ finances be taken into account affecting how much an adult student can get as a loan?

Fear…the other nasty, four letter word

For the past couple of weeks, one my beautiful best friends and I have been having an ongoing conversation about fear and how it can wreak havoc in your life and hold you back from getting what you really want.

For her, right now it’s a job she hates but gives her too many of the things she needs and wants. It’s a means to an end. Regardless, she’s terrified to leave the safety net she’s built. She’s scared to take a risk and a leap of faith to see if there’s something better out there. And, to complicate things, she doesn’t even know what job she would be happy doing. Fear is holding her back from doing what is required to be happy and it’s leaving her with distaste in her mouth and resentment in her soul.

For another gorgeous friend of mine, it’s the fear of being alone. Recently out of a long-term relationship, being alone is turning her emotions upside down. She’s in a panicked search for someone to fill the void; serial dating and having flings that leave her high on emotional comfort for a moment in time but over the long-term, leave her empty and longing for something more. Fear is leaving her desperate and emotionally overloaded.

For me, my dream is to be an outrageously successful author and I am afraid I just don’t have what it takes. I am terrified I am not a good enough writer, that I won’t be able to commit and see the project through to the end, and/or that my book idea will be a huge flop. Plus, this has always been my “ultimate” plan so if this falls through, then what? Fear is shutting down my creativity and debilitating me with writer’s block.

Fear…the other nasty four letter word. It holds us back from going after what we really want in life whether it’s in our career, our love life, or our dreams. It’s a paralyzing emotion that tweaks at our deepest insecurities and exploits them making them feel larger than life and overwhelming.

So how do we confront our fears and overcome them?

My take on it: in short (and kind of corny), we need to face them head on and never look back; grab the bull by the horns and hold on for the ride.

For my friend who hates her job, I suggested she start creating her “dream” job by reading job advertisements and pulling out titles and responsibilities/tasks that make her heart sing and that she thinks sound fun; to set a date by which she needs to have another job; and to start applying and interviewing for jobs immediately – even if she doesn’t take one right away. Lucky for her, she recently took a one-day workshop on finding and creating dreams that got her mojo going; it inspired her and fired her up! She’s armed and dangerous – fear should watch out!

For my friend who’s aching for true love to fill her up and make her spirits rise, I encouraged her to face her fear and to purposely choose to stay alone; to find love within herself; to become enthralled with her own inner beauty and awesomeness…so she could share that with a partner rather than trying to fill herself up by him. And so that she could trust herself explicitly that she’d always drop a douche bag in lieu of settling. When a woman is held hostage by the fear of being alone, she will often choose the relationship (however lacking it is) over her own happiness and ultimate relationship dreams. And there’s nothing worse than watching a friend you love and admire get used and abused by a rotten partner. Choosing to be alone and focus on building her own self-love is not an easy thing for her (or any woman) but she’s gone out and met a few new gal pals that are helping her through the emotional rollercoaster – so fear better look out!

So what advice would I give to myself? To sit down and start writing. To let go of the hopes and plans for the outcome; to just start writing for the sheer love it. To face my fear head on and to trust that in following my dream and passion, success that I can’t even begin to imagine will follow. So…I got me a new notepad stashed by the bedside – fear best run, I got me a great pen!

What fears have paralyzed you in your life and how have you overcome them?  

Dear blog…my dog is my baby…

Well, a week ago today, my dog was injured. Tess is a near 10-year-old Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. About five years ago, she injured her knee playing fetch. It was a pretty serious sprain that took a few weeks to heal from. Now, it seems like ever since that first injury, the knee is susceptible to re-injury; about once a year or so. And last Tuesday, Tess was flying across the back yard at full speed when she fetched up to an immediate halt and starting screeching.

I am not sure how many of you have been around a Duck Toller but they don’t just howl, they screech like a freaking banshee. It’s loud and at a heart wrenching soprano level. My heart nearly stopped and I ran to her. There she stood, whimpering, a tripod; balancing on three legs holding the back left straight up in the air.

Now, you have to understand, this isn’t the first time we’ve gone through this and I’ve come to recognize and accept that my dog is…well…a bit of a drama queen…with a touch of spleeny tossed in. The first few injuries, I’d rush her to the vet immediately and the next day she’d be up and around with no lasting side effects, fully recovered. So this time, after I felt the leg all over, pushing and squeezing, and was certain nothing was broken, I was convinced that this latest injury was likely par for the course. She’d be right as rain in a day or two.

But the next day when we got home, she was still holding up her left leg and wouldn’t put any weight on it. I got concerned, and so did Scott. She was due for her annual exam anyway so we figured a vet visit was in good order.

And it was a good thing. The vet is concerned that this time it could be more than a strain or sprain, but an actual torn ACL. Due to the swelling, she couldn’t tell 100% so Tess is on couch potato duty, pain and anti-inflammatory meds, and I am icing the knee three times a day for the next 10 days. She goes back for a recheck on June 21 for a final verdict; rehabilitation/healing or surgery (with a cost of around $1200)?!?!

Here’s the thing. Scott and I have had this ongoing and open discussion about what we would do when this time came: when Tess started needing surgeries and bigger dollar investments. With a life expectancy of only 12 to 15 years old, we both agreed that there would come a certain point where major moolah for big surgeries would be a moot point. Add to that, I don’t believe in compromising my dog’s quality of life for my own need to keep her around longer. If she is suffering and her quality of life is not going to improve, I would like to think no matter how hard the decision, I would put her down.

But neither of us feels like we are quite there yet. Even though she’s turning 10 this year, she seems to have a ton of life, energy, and spirit left in her. Other than this knee, there are relatively no other health issues. Wth a possible cost of $1200 for the surgery, we are just on the “cusp” of our financial comfort zone. Pushing right up against the boundaries but not quite pushing over.

And then comes the “what ifs”; what if we invest in this surgery only to turn around and have the other leg go within a year at another $1200? Thirty percent of dogs who have one surgery done, require the other leg to be done; likely because of all the weight/strain they put on the other leg while injured and recovering. That could potentially mean $2400 within a year or so.

I am pretty certain that if the vet recommends surgery, we’ll suck it up and do it: happily. I want her with us as long as possible and as strong as possible. She’s my baby – my little girl – my darlin’!

It does beg to question, our pets are our fur babies, but when is too much, too much? How do you know?

Moving to minimum security

So, we were informed this week of Trent’s new home: Westmorland Institution in Dorchester, New Brunswick. Sentenced to three years in a federal prison, he’s spent the first two months in a provincial institution called Springhill for processing. He may not have been convicted of murder in the first or second degree but in my mind, impaired driving causing death is still murder. I pictured him some place harsh, cold, six-by-six cell, hard bunk, stainless steel toilet…you get the picture.

Instead, it turns out it’s more like a halfway house. Westmorland Institution is a minimum-security facility, the only in Atlantic Canada. It opened in 1975 and can accommodate 252 inmates. It’s a campus-style complex including a number of row-houses for offenders and a community building with staff office facilities. The Institution offers a range of personal development, academic and vocational programs.

I am not sure how any of you would feel if someone had gotten drunk and killed your mother-in-law but I know for me, it’s a tough pill to swallow thinking of Trent living in his own room, with a decent bed, allowed to roam around, have visitors every day, and perhaps get trained for a new vocation for when he’s eligible for parole in less than four months.

I would imagine anyone who’s been victimized in some way by another person feels this way. I think it comes from an innate wanting to feel…to know…that the person who hurt you was forced to suffer, in a least some small degree, the same way you did. I know for me, I want Trent to hurt the same way he has hurt my family. I want him to feel the loneliness, the longing to see a loved one’s face more than anything, the wantingness to hear that voice one last time so deeply and badly, it overwhelms your every sense. I want to know that he’s been forced to experience the sense of time and memories stolen, robbed from you in the middle of the night. I want to know that he’s felt that pain and desolation to the same degree that I know my Mamma K family has.

In the end, my head knows that nothing can ever “make it right” – no amount of time in a cold, dank prison cell – but my heart still wants for it.

New Brunswick imposes tougher driving distracted laws

I am thrilled to see this legislation come into play in New Brunswick. Back in January, I wrote a post about the dangers of driving distracted. As I said in that post, it’s as if driving seems so easy, safe, and insignificant that we have this idea that we can do just about anything while driving; put on makeup, read the newspaper, shave, text, email, talk on the phone etc.

We seem to forget that we are all behind the wheel of a compilation of steel and mechanical parts weighing anywhere between 4000 and 15000 pounds going 30, 50, 110 kilometers an hour making it, in some senses, a very dangerous weapon. When we become licensed drivers, the safety and security of hundreds of people is intrusted to each of us and it seems to me, we are desensitized to the risk and the dangers and therefore, don’t seem to take it seriously enough.

They say if you drive while texting, you are 27 times more likely to be in an accident. Did you know that is tantamount to driving drunk? A driver with a blood alcohol level of .08% (NB’s legal limit) is about three to four times more likely to cause an accident; at .10% they are six times more likely; and at .15% (nearly twice the legal limit) they are 25 times more likely.

It boggles my mind that people need to be regulated to not drive distracted. But I guess that’s what it takes so I am thrilled that it’s finally here.

In New Brunswick, the law tries to address more than just driving while using your cell phone; it encompasses all those things that can impair drivers:

  • Cell Phones: You cannot make or take calls when driving unless your telephone is hands-free or single-touch. If there is an emergency, you can call 911. Only while driving a police, fire or ambulance vehicle are you allowed to make or take a call.
  • Texting: You are not allowed. Ever.
  • GPS: You can look at your GPS screen, but you cannot program or handle it.
  • MP3 or other entertainment devices: You can handle built-in devices. If you have a portable device plugged in while you drive, you can listen, but you cannot touch.
  • Display screen: If it is built into your vehicle, it is fine. Otherwise, you cannot have it in your view.
  • Two-way radio: You can use a two-way radio if driving for commercial purposes or driving a commercial vehicle (a bus or vehicle with gross mass of 4,500 kg or more), or involved in an emergency operation or search-and-rescue.

Drivers found in violation of the legislation can be fined $172.50 and lose three points from their license.

In Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador was the first province to ban the use of cell phones by drivers followed by Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and now New Brunswick. Almost all the United States have passed similar legislation and more than 50 countries have pass laws regarding the use of cell phones while operating a motor vehicle.

Hat’s off to the New Brunswick government for bringing this important piece of legislation into effect!

My “chat” with the Minister of Justice

So back in October of 2010, I sent out a call to action, via my blog and an email campaign to friends and family, to help bring random breath testing to Canada.

I also sent an email to my local Member of Parliament (MP), Mike Allen. Sort of surprisingly, I had a really great conversation with him about the merits and importance of not only random breath testing but about the flaws in Canada’s impaired driving laws. At the end of the day, I felt heard and understood, and most importantly, I felt his compassion and interest in helping my family with our cause.

On that same day, October 22, 2010, I sent this email: Dear Honourable Rob Nicholson to the Minister of Justice, the Honourable Rob Nicholson.

In March 2011, I received this response from his office: Correspondence from the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada. It was obviously written by one of his staffers given that the email address in the reply was the “Ministerial Correspondence Unit”. Wow – the “unit” wrote me back! Seriously? Although I was glad to receive a response and appreciated that “someone” took the time and effort to write it, I gotta say, it left me feeling ignored and discounted. I thought the author could have at least pretended to send the email from Minister Nicholson?

That being said, perhaps the lack of authenticity was also due in part to the fact that it took his “Ministerial Correspondence Unit” nearly 5 MONTHS to toss together those 9 paragraphs/575 words! I don’t know…call me crazy but I was left unsatisfied with our communiqué.

Adding salt to my wounded ego, the “Unit” felt compelled to tell me all the “amazing things” the Justice Department has done to have real impact on impaired driving in our country. Hmmmm…having just buried a loved one in 2009, knowing that the impaired driving statistics in Canada are only going up (not down), and having just gone through the justice system, I felt it was my obligation…my responsibility….nay, my DUTY to write the “unit” and Mr. Nicholson about the reality of the situation.

Check out my lengthy reply: RE Correspondence from the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada.

Hmmmm…I wonder if it’ll be another 5 months before the “unit” can manage their next reply. I wait with bated breath…

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