Three words to define my 2017

I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've ever picked three words for the year for myself. Yay me! For the uninitiated, here's what the whole picking three words concept is all about.

To be honest, I didn't think that hard about the words for this year. They came to me pretty easily. Then I started second guessing them, so I waited to write about my choices until I was sure they were the right fit. These three words are all about me taking action but in very different ways. The meanings (for me) are also multi-faceted, but you'll see what I mean.

Write.

So, I'm a writer - just in case you weren't aware. That's my actual job title and I was (and still am) pretty excited (read: stupidly giddy) to be able to say that, even if I've been calling myself a writer for years now.

Choosing this word felt like cheating at first - of COURSE, I'm going to write this year and likely every year for the rest of my days on this twirling rock. And, as mentioned above, it's my job. However, in my eagerness to get up to speed at my new job and improve my health, I've let my personal writing projects fall by the wayside. I don't regret this; it was a conscious decision and it was the right decision but only for the short term. The short term is officially over, but I always planned for it to be over with the holidays anyway. I'm right on schedule. :) 

Journaling has been an important part of my life for nearly 30 years. (Oy, 30 years!!! I guess you get to say that phrase more and more often when you hit the year of the big 4-0!) A friend of mine inspired me to get back to the habit of daily journaling over the holidays - or, uh, last week. I had a run of committed daily journaling for several weeks a few months ago, but as I ramped up my self-care, I found it difficult to make time to keep up the amount of journaling I was doing. So, as my coach urged me to do, I'm being kinder to myself by loosening my standards about when and how much I do. I'd rather keep the habit that I find so valuable and do less of it daily than drop it entirely and lose the benefit. 

My fingers have been so restless to fly over my keyboard and get words out on a blank page on the screen. It's the strangest, but most wonderful feeling to have ideas and words piling up in your head so much that your hands practically vibrate with the need to release them. That's a good sign to me that it's time to blog more and spend time writing the books that are in my head. 

Create.

This is closely related to "write" in some ways, but there's a difference. I've got several book ideas that I've been working on at varying stages. There's a lot of creating that needs to happen. The worlds. The characters. But that can only happen as I excavate the story. I need to make time to create these things. It's invigorating. It's not unusual for me to lose massive amounts of sleep when I get deep into the creating process. It's not unlike reading a really good book. 

The other part of this word is an idea that has been germinating for about six months. I don't know if I'm going to take the steps to pursue this idea yet. I only know I have to start taking steps to decide if it addresses a need and if it's the right time to pursue it. I think it could, but I need to know for sure before it starts to move past the idea stage.

Advocate.

The second part of "create"? That idea has a bit to do with this intention. It's going to be up in the air until spring no matter what. 

Generally, advocacy is always going to be important to me. It is for any parent of a child with special needs. But it isn't solely about supporting my son or the charities that support kids with autism. It's also about advocating for myself and my family. It means saying no to the requests that don't move me in the right direction. It means saying yes to those that do when I can make the time. It means considering the whole picture - my family, my work, me, my goals, our goals.

I'm a strong supporter of Ottawa businesswomen in addition to the occasional work I do for autism charities. I love these things and I want to always contribute to them, but my level of commitment will vary over time as my focus changes. This is part of advocating for me and my family and maintaining balance in the work I do for the causes I'm passionate about.

Choosing these words got me excited about 2017 and the possibilities that exist. One of my favorite quotes for the New Year is this from Brad Paisley:

We're down to 361 pages now, but it's never too late to jump in. 

Ch-ch-ch-changes ... good ones, too

Back in June of this year, I was working at home one day. Sitting here at my desk and listening to music while doing a task by rote. I didn't need to concentrate on what I was doing, so I started singing away to whatever I was listening to. It was one of those moments when I felt both productive and free.

Then I sort of woke up from my haze of bliss to realize a few things:

  1. I was very out of practice singing. Not surprising since I quit the choir I used to sing in over 13 years ago when I took a course that conflicted with rehearsals. But I've been missing it for a while and getting back into singing has been on my mind a lot.
  2. Being out of practice, I didn't have much stamina for holding out long notes. This fact hurts my technical perfectionist heart. It's embarrassing, even when I'm the only witness.
  3. Also, being out of shape, I wasn't going to get far in building up stamina without making some changes.

And something clicked for me. Something I've wanted to click into place for pretty much my entire life.

This minor life-shifting event happened right around lunch time and my stomach was starting to protest its empty state. So, I went in the kitchen, knowing as I did that I would prepare something that would truly nourish me. I also knew I was going to be more careful from that point on. 

The click had happened. I finally flipped the switch I'd been trying to reach for decades. 

I started to care about what I was doing to my body day in and day out because I could no longer do something that was once second nature and easy. I could no longer do something to the level of quality that I achieved when I was younger. I could no longer do something well that I really, truly love to do.

I made big changes right away. I dusted off my Fitbit Force and started wearing it every day. I struggled to get 4,000 steps in every day. Then I worked myself up to 5,000. Eventually, I got to 8,000 a day. Then I hit 10,000 and I was thrilled, but I knew I wanted to do more. I pushed harder and started hitting 12K every day for a week before a friend invited me to join a challenge in the Fitbit app. I left my goal at 12K, but it was pretty clear that this group had some high step achievers in it, which motivated me to push even harder. I get in 15K steps most days now, but I've gone as high as 30K, too, and I'm feeling amazing. 

I know myself and getting my workout completed in the morning is the best possible scenario for getting it done at all - I actually wake up at 4:00am (!!) most days to make it happen. Evenings are far too full of getting dinner, homework, play time, reading, and all the other end-of-day minutiae completed. So, I get 10-12K steps in before I even set foot out of the house. I am careful to eat well but not deprive myself so I never feel like I'm missing out. 

The result is that I've lost 30 pounds ... so far. I'm also stronger, have more energy, am happier in general and I've got a sizable pile of clothes to donate to someone that needs them. (I recommend Suits Me if you're in Ottawa and looking for a good place to donate work clothes.)

The benefit is that I can hold those long notes again. My voice is stronger and I love singing more than I have in a really long time. I even sang a bit of an Italian aria to some WBN Executive members when we were meeting in a restaurant a few weeks ago. (True story - it's a song that I sang for my music school audition 20 years ago!!! I still remember some of it.) I have never broken out in song in the middle of a public place before in my life. It was exhilarating and kind of terrifying but in a good way.

If I had to report on how I'm doing with my promise to myself to really live in this fortieth year of mine, I'd say I'm thrilled with how it's going. There's more to it than getting healthy (my new normal), but I'll save the rest for future blog fodder. 

Life is good - and I'm gonna keep living it to the fullest and healthiest possible.

A perfect moment of joy between friends

Brandon has a friend at school whom he adores. This other little boy, who I'll call Dennis, kinda reminds me of Dennis the Menace, but in the best possible way - we really like him. He also seems to get Brandon like no one else. They've been in the same class for three years, and they've been mostly inseparable for the past two years.

Dennis has been out from time to time this school year - I think his family must be having one of those cursed years of one sickness after another after another. (I really feel for them on this!) On one occasion, he returned to school the same day Brandon asked me to pick him up early. I was able to get him early, but I found out later that Brandon had a really hard time leaving Dennis behind. He wanted to be with me, but he didn't want to miss a single minute of his friend being back. He actually got teary-eyed when he hugged Dennis goodbye. They have a really sweet and special relationship.

Brandon often comes home telling me plans that he and Dennis have made. We take them with a grain of salt. If moms or dads haven't been in touch, there aren't any actual plans. But a couple weeks ago the boys decided they were going to meet at the school playground to play after dinner. Matt picked Brandon up, heard the plan, and was able to take him at the time they said. Dennis wasn't there. 

A week later, I was doing pickup. Once again, a plan had been made. But I had a work commitment and I told Brandon I wasn't sure we'd make it back in time. He went with me, helped me, and I rushed to finish so we could get back to the school as soon as possible. We were 15 minutes late and Dennis was once again not there. 

While Brandon and I rushed to get to the school, I called Matt and begged him to meet me at the school so I could go home and change out of the shirt I spilled chipotle sauce all over (I was a literal hot mess). He met us, as promised, as we were walking back to the car and offered to stay with Brandon so he could play even though Dennis wasn't there. I got about 20 feet away, heading back to my car, when Matt called out to me.

I turned around and saw Brandon running for all his might toward Dennis, who was running just as eagerly to hug his friend. 

Their faces radiated happiness and their little bodies practically vibrated with joy. 

Even though I didn't have a camera ready, that image is etched in my brain as one of the sweetest things I've ever seen. 

Later, I found out that Dennis had to work pretty hard to convince his parents to let him go and I'm so thankful they humoured him.

The stories that come out of schools about mean kids and bullying (even some of what Brandon has experienced) can make us sad, depressed, and angry.

But those aren't the only stories, thank goodness. There are stories of kids who meet and form a bond that has the potential to last if life circumstances work in their favour. Whatever happens, I hope these boys will always remember the years of their friendship as happy times growing up knowing they have a friend to lean on no matter what.

39 years

When I was in middle school, I shared most classes with a girl who thought anyone older than her - even by a single day - was old. I tried to wrap my mind around that, but I couldn't. I tried to convince her that our parents weren't actually old, but that didn't work either. She was kinda funny in her views back then and I wonder how they've evolved as we're all well into adulthood now. She was also older than me, so I let her know that by her own standard she was old. (Gifted kids can be total know-it-all brats to each other.)

Age has always been just a number to me. It doesn't say anything about me other than how long I've existed. It's not a reflection of who I am or what I'm capable of doing. 

Today I turn 39 and begin my fortieth year of living. I've been thinking about this particular birthday for months because my hopes and dreams and goals for the next couple of years are pretty big.

I'm rekindling my interest in and love for various types of artistic expression.  (Not paint nites, though. Those don't interest me at all.) 

I'm overflowing with ideas and though I can't do them all (not at once, anyway), picking through them is gratifying and fun. 

When I look back on this year in 365 days, I want to be able to say I lived.

  • That I pursued the interests that fulfill me - regularly and passionately. 
  • That I loved my family vigorously.
  • That I worked hard for those who depend on me. 
  • That I made changes to be a better person than I am today.
  • That I sing and make music, even if it's only in my head.
  • That I have done my part to make the world/my community a better place.

None of us knows how much time we get to spend on this rock. We just have to make the most of each day we're given. Carpe diem.

Find good quality, legal images for your website

I love creating lovely images for my website. I have developed my own brand style guide so that fonts and colours I use on images are consistent throughout. I've personally invested a lot of money in tools like Adobe Creative Cloud and a subscription to Adobe Stock because I take on occasional graphic design projects for clients, in addition to doing all of my own design work. 

That said, I don't know many business owners that want to buy and use Adobe design tools, because there's a fairly heavy learning curve and it's expensive when design isn't your genius work. 

So, I've compiled a list of just a few of the places you can look for good quality images that you can use with or without attribution. This list is pretty comprehensive and contains image sites that you may find don't work as well for your particular business.  

One quick note before we get into the photo resources - It's always important to check the license available on any image that's free or paid. The least restrictive license for commercial use is Creative Commons Zero, which allows for personal/commercial use without attribution - other licenses are more restrictive so read carefully or choose selectively to ensure your use is permitted. CC0 doesn't waive all rights, but it is the least restrictive.

Free photo pack subscriptions 

I've started to subscribe to sites that send me free pictures and I've developed a pretty extensive library of beautiful stock photos that I have rights to use. There are many photos that I may never need for my own site, but that doesn't mean my clients won't ever need them!

Search free image sites

If you're used to going on to stock image sites and doing searches instead of sifting through your own library of photos, you may prefer these sites for finding images. They are all free, so once again, check the licensing. Note that all of the photo pack subscription sites have various degrees of search function as well. 

The free image sites I use most

Morguefile - Truthfully, I use this one a lot less lately because I can find better quality images elsewhere, but don't discount it entirely. There have been many times it's the only place I can find the right image. 

FreeImages.com - This was my go-to replacement for Morguefile when I realized I wasn't finding good images as often. 

Stock Up - I start on Stock Up these days. The site aggregates search results from a number of different sources and when you hover over pictures, you can see the license. It's just really handy and the quality is excellent.

Pixabay - Even though Pixabay results often show up in Stock Up, I still do a search there separately because I get lucky from time to time. I've been really happy with the quality of the results there too.

Gratisography - This is a searchable photo collection that is ever-growing and has quite a mix of content. Some is very artsy. Some is weird. All of it is high quality. I don't think I've used more than one or two images so far, but I made sure to donate so they don't go away. :)

Other free sites I occasionally use

These are but a few sites that are out there. In fact, a fellow WBN member posted this list of the best free stock photo sites recently and I haven't had a chance to check out the ones that I'm not already using just yet. 

A little side note to promote that friend a wee bit more, because it's apropos of this post! Rachela, the owner of Butter and Honey Design is a talented graphic designer who is teaching so much about DIY graphic design. You can join her group on Facebook to get a taste and then be sure to check out her courses which I hear great things about!

Paid stock options

Of course free is easier to fit in the budget, but sometimes it's harder to find what you want or need for free. That's why I suggest you start with Canva if you have to go paid. Canva stock images are $1 each. If you want an image without any other design elements, just pick a layout size, then find an image you want in their library and download the image without adding text/design elements. Just be mindful of the license.

A new comparable Canva alternative is Desygner. For now, it's free and the images available are also free to use. But that never lasts, because they'll need money to keep going eventually. The image library is linked to Wikimedia, which can be limiting in terms of useful images, particularly if you need larger sizes.

I mentioned Adobe Stock above, but I also like Shutterstock for paid stock because of the way they structure payment compared to other paid stock sites. 1 credit = 1 image, regardless of size/file type. They also have pay as you go plans. They tend to cost more per image than a subscription, but if you don't need lots of images regularly, it's cheaper to pay as you go.

I need more images more regularly now, which is why I now have a 10 credits/month subscription at Adobe Stock. Shutterstock became my paid stock site of choice after using iStockBig StockDreamstime, and a few others. They have transparent pricing so I know exactly what to expect. And since I often buy large image sizes and vector graphics, the others cost me more.

Design bundle sites

Last, but not least (IMHO), is membership sites and package deal sites. If you aren't a designer, these will have limited value for you, so skip this section if you're not interested! 

Design Cuts - I stumbled upon Design Cuts sometime last year and I'm addicted. I've bought quite a few of the monthly bundles and now they've launched a marketplace where you can build your own bundles and save a ton of money. The quality has been amazing. The amount of design elements I have is overwhelming, but I have also invested in a couple of bundles that included photo packs. And they're gorgeous. I've used quite a few in blog posts. 

Mighty Deals - Like Design Cuts, this is a site that offers design bundles. They seem to have more photo packs than DC does, though, and I've grabbed a few from them as well. Just be careful if you buy multiple photo pack bundles. I've found some overlap, so vet them carefully, even if you buy from different bundle sites.

As you can see, there are many, many resources to find affordable images to use on your website to maintain a high-quality look. You don't need to use google image search and worry about copyright infringement or the hit and miss caliber of the graphics. 

If you have a favourite photo site that I haven't listed, add it in the comments!