Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What's With All The Movement and Noise?

"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means." --Joan Didion

Perhaps there are people in the world who can read that sentence and not be endlessly fascinated. I am not one of them. I remain so captivated by hearing about various writers' motivations, in fact, that I actually caught myself earlier this week worrying what would happen to me if I realized one day I was no longer interested in such things. (Nope, there's no neuroticism here, honey!) As such, I was grateful this weekend to discover an organization devoted entirely to encouraging and supporting women who write blogs. If you haven't already, ladies, you must check out

I absolutely love the idea that women, all over the world, feel so compelled by a certain something that they actually take the time to sit down and write about it. I remain impressed and awed by the sheer number who have made this happen. Granted, one could easily make the argument that writing a blog is insignificant because the process is so accessible, practically everyone can do it. To be sure, easy access and quality assurance don't exactly form a blissful union, but that's not my concern here. Instead, here's what I see.

I see a light that lives inside, faint at first, covered in shadows. Slowly, quietly, unsure of where it wants to go, the light begins to move. Listening, watching, sensing there's a place for it outside, the beam starts to journey up. Expanding now, a little less hidden than before, the beam surprises itself and starts to buzz. Partly wishing it could turn around and go back, the light realizes it won't stop moving, faster, louder, harder to ignore. Just where is it heading, and why? As much as it wants an answer, a reason for all this sudden movement and noise, even the beam knows that's not what's important. Not right now. All it can do is try to get used to the feeling.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Weekend of (Too Much?) Possibility

Hello, weekend! Few things compare to having two whole days ahead of you to do practically whatever you want. The house is quiet, hubby and kitties are sleeping in, and a rabbits's exploring the barely green grass out back. Out there it's 43 degrees and heavy with grey, enticing me to do to anything but leave the coziness of home.

Days like this are ripe with possibility for a girl like me. Within minutes of waking up, I jumped through the list of things I'd do if only I could find the time:

I'll head to the fabric store for that blue-on-blue sundress I've been imagining! I'll get around to signing up for Race for the Cure! I start a calendar of Summer Adventures That Capitalize on The Awesomeness of the Twin Cities! I'll seek out the ultimate volunteering opportunity! I'll track down the latest Books and Bars selection so I can attend this series I've wondered about for three years running! I'll go to the DMV and update those tabs a full seven days before my car becomes illegal! I'll browse Easter recipes! (Surprise. This one actually did happen.) Now, I'll bake that bunny-shaped brioche with raisin eyes and a hazelnut nose!

Here's what actually happened: Entranced by the anticipation of so many wondrous things, incapable of selecting just one, I mindlessy browsed the web for an hour and a half. In the end, I will get where I want to go. I'll embrace a decision, and I'll act. Inevitably, it takes me awhile to transition out of work mode, where pre-determined tasks march endlessly ahead of me. Soon, very soon, I will make a move toward spending my life with intention, doing the things (okay, let's pick just one at a time) that matter.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

This Week, A Tiny Victory

If someone experiences a tiny victory through writing a blog, she's obligated to tell about it on said blog, no? Starting this process, I wondered if I had the guts to participate in the internet, rather than use it only as a passive surfer. Of course other, braver people use the web to find likeminded people and actually connect with them, but was this a risk I was willing to undertake? I waffled around for quite some time. Truth be told, I'd determined a year ago I was going to start a blog, but didn't follow through till this month.

And so, I was delighted two days ago, when a coworker stepped into my office and told me she'd read my blog. As it turns out, she, too, writes one--a practice she's been enjoying for the course of a year. We proceeded to have a hopeful conversation about what writing means to each of us. She, a mamma who's expecting, uses it as manageable alternative to her ultimate dream of writing one of the two novels burgeoning in her mind. Taking precious time for herself doesn't hurt, either.

The two of us have worked together, on the same team, for at least six years. I find it comforting to know that by reaching out--each in our own small way--we've both managed to discover not only a place of peace for ourselves, but also a community to encourage us.

Monday, April 18, 2011

My Favorite Sentence of All Time

I began this blog two weeks ago, aimlessly hoping that if I could change one small habit, I might discover something new. I wasn't sure exactly what I was reaching for. All I knew was that something felt off about how I'd grown to spend my time. A few too many hours slipped away thoughtlessly, without much participation from me. And so, I began to write.

And what I'd forgotten, slowly over the years, is how much I love writing. I'd forgotten how empowering it can be to sort the words just the way you want them. I'd forgotten that thoughts have a way of getting lost if you don't give them a place to go. And though I've repeated it from time to time, I'd forgotten to remember my favorite sentence of all time: "As it happens, I am still committed to the belief that the ability to think for one's self depends on one's mastery of the language. . ." Even now, nineteen years later, the power of this sentence simultaneously inspires and intimidates me.

I came across it my freshman year of college, while writing an essay on "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," Joan Didion's piece about drugs and the Haight-Ashbury district. When I came across these incredible words, I was trying to decide what my major would be: either English or Business Administration. One night, I whined continuously through 45 minutes of accounting homework, then hardly noticed as I spent four hours crafting a single paragraph of that essay. Right then, I had my answer. I never looked back.

I can't for a second claim to be a real writer. But what feels good to me is the knowledge that this hardly matters. What matters instead, what keeps me intrigued, is that I'm participating in the game.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Zucchini, Dark Chocolate Chips, and a Sunday Afternoon

Today I did right by my Sunday afternoon and got around to some baking. I'm one of those (possibly annoying?) types who cannot bring herself bake unless she tries to incorporate some sort of health benefit. If you happen to watch Parks and Recreation (I never said I'd give up TV entirely, did I?), you'll understand my amusement about the fact that Rob Lowe's character reminds me, just the tiniest bit, of myself. Though I've never brought a veggie loaf to a party instead of cake, I admit I'm highly likely to sneak some sort of vegetable into a plate of cookies.

This afternoon, I did that very thing and whipped up a batch of some fave cookies: zucchini chocolate chip. (If you're a glutton for healthful punishment, or just happen to have an extra squash lying around, see the recipes section to find out how to make them.) Actually, these cookies always prove to be outstanding, in their cakey, satisfying-afternoon-snack kind of way. This time, I used 60% dark chocolate chips, which turned out to be a heavenly move. (I internally cheered with delight the other day when I discovered these on sale, for the first time ever.)

And so, though I did NOT manage to accomplish a variety of other things I probably should have done instead (such as, say, plan out actual meals for the week), I am satisfied in the knowledge that my snacks will be covered. For me, snacks are no laughing matter. I am utterly baffled by people who breezily say, "I just don't get hungry during the day. Sometimes I even forget lunch!" I, on the other hand, barely make it through the day without a morning AND an afternoon snack. Empty-caloried, sugar-only snacks need not apply. I need food, people!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Hooray for Spring Cleaning

I use the term "spring" with an edge to my voice, as it's April 16 and we woke up to fresh snow today. Despite the fact that this is decidedly NOT OKAY, I'm going to move past it and focus on slightly better news: Today, some spring cleaning actually got done. If you're anything like me, you promise yourself, several times each month, that this will be the week you inventory the closet, gather the unworn clothes, and head to the donation station at thrift shop.

So on the day you finally fulfill the promise, you've earned cause for a tiny celebration. I'll take it a step farther and say you get to celebrate even if you only executed the first step. It's important to remember you're one step closer than you were yesterday. For me, the process goes like this:

Divide clothes, shoes, and home items into two sections--"Attempt to Sell" and "Donate Straightaway."

Call your fave neighborhood consignment shop. Make appointment to bring in items. Now you know you'll actually follow through.

Determine where in the world your iron ended up since you last used it 3 months ago.

Break out the iron and get that sucker steaming.

Head to the consignment shop, leaving time to drive to the thrift shop immediatly after.

Drive home. Enjoy newfound space in your drawers, closet, basement, and mindset.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

That's Twenty-Two Dollars Well Spent

Sometimes, you have to find a way out of your own head. When you care deeply about something, you want to give your energy to it. But what happens when you dole out too much power to one single thing? Well, I'll tell you. You become the person you never wanted to be. You know the one I'm talking about. Driven by an inability to see past that one frustrating thing, she somehow finds a way to direct the conversation, maybe even every conversation, to her issue.

And so, here was my charge: Do something, whatever I possibly could, to take some of that misplaced power back. Then, go and put it somewhere else. I'm proud to report that I actually managed the goal for the day. I'd like to say I achieved something visionary like discovering how to balance all things that matter in life--marriage, work, friendships, spirituality, community. No, not quite. Here's what happened instead.

I got frustrated by something beyond my control. I stewed about it. I talked with friends about it. Exhausted from last night's bout of insomnia, I became overcome with weariness about it. I knew I had shift my focus, to make myself put energy somewhere new, but I was so darned tired I didn't know how. Until . . . a thought occurred to me. Consignment shop! In case you can't quite tell, I LOVE consignment shops. I adore everything about them--the racks arranged by color, the discovery of just the thing, the comfort of finding a bargain, and the sheer possibility of it all.

Mercifully, the plan worked. Within minutes, gazing across the variety of shoes, I stopped obssessing about what I couldn't fix, and started to think about color, fit, and style. Surrounded by blues and greens, I began to envision spring. And even better, I found something for summer: a sporty tank for volleyball. Oh yes, one day our toes really will be back in the sand. Did I end up changing the world tonight? Not even close. But I did find a way to change my perspective, and some days that feels like accomplishment enough.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dinner Is Not a Surprise

All day, I looked forward to coming home to cook dinner and have the whole evening to myself. When I get to make whatever I please, I usually go for something vegetarian. Since my husband's a meat-and-potatoes guy, a plateful of veggies is my ultimate luxury. Tonight I cranked up my cooking playlist and made a batch of African pineapple peanut stew. Everything about the experience made me happy--chopping thick slices of fresh pineapple (watch out for the leaves on top, though, or they might just nick your hand), fragrant cilantro (no, it doesn't taste like soap, as a friend of mine believes), and vibrant green kale (just wilt it down and you're good to go).

There's something therapeutic about cooking. It's one of the few things that makes me feel both nurtured and nurturing at the same time. I go though on-and-off phases with cooking, but the "on" times nearly always accompany contentedness for me. I like knowing that, no matter what else may be happening with my day, I can get into zen chopping mode, creating something healthful or yummy. Tonight's dinner proved to be both, my favorite kind of meal.

Not every night can be a cooking night, at least not for those of us who could use some help in the discipline department. After attending a personal organization class a few years back, a friend of mine shared something she'd learned. "Dinner is not a surprise," she remarked, wide-eyed and laughing. "'It comes every day,' my instructor says, so you might as well find a way to be ready. Dinner's not a surprise," she said again, "Imagine!" I'm aware there are plenty of people in the world who've already mastered this concept, but I, like my friend, was stunned and delighted by this revolutionary idea. As such, I relish nights like tonight, when everything comes together and I actually get to cook.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Shrimp Bisque that Changed My Life

I'm 37 years old, and I've always hated shrimp. Until tonight, I had never once (and here's an instance when literally actually applies) tasted a dish containing shrimp that did not make me want to gag. I'm not proud of this. In fact, I'd like to think that I, as a mature adult, possess the capability to overcome silly childhood food aversions. Sadly, no, this particular visceral loathing has always been there. If you've ever felt this way, I hope you'll share my excitement about the fact that I had shrimp bisque for dinner and adored it!

But this (you have to admit, monumental) victory is not the only reason my 4 percent came easily today. I got to spend the evening with two of my girlfriends, drinking wine and enojoying homemade food. Few situations make me happier than this. Tonight, as is typical after talking with these ladies, I walked away with new perspectives and questions to explore. Each of us happens to be working on some sort of writing project, and one friend asked the others, "Why do you want to write?"

For me, one answer emerged that I wasn't expecting. I slowly came to the realization that--just maybe--I might sort of, kind of, need to get better at being vulnerable. In recent years I've become quite the problem solver. Somebody's got to figure things out and fix them, so why not jump in try to make it happen? And this quality's not entirely a bad thing--until some days, when it is. Because, you see, as you just may have discovered once or twice, problem solving doesn't always work. Sometimes, vulnerability's the only way. Where I'm going with this--in the blog and in my life--I can't say for sure. All I know is I'm curious enough to want to find out.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

My iPad Is Covered

I'm the kind of person who loves a project. I enjoy projects of all kinds--hence the establishment of a blog as an attempt to watch less TV--but today's project involved the sewing machine. I learned to sew last winter, when, after a failed attempt at learning to knit, I signed up for a community-ed sewing class a nearby high school. For those of you knitters out there, kudos to you! I remain utterly baffled by the ego-crushing complexity of the task, and I may never recover from the self-inflicted humiliation that accompanied my trying to learn.

I arrived at Knitting for Beginners and discovered my fellow classmates were an an 8-year-old girl and her even younger cousin. Knowing I'm one who supports the development and encouragement of children, you'd think I'd have cheered their success, when, 15 minutes into class, their clear superiority began to emerge. Oh, no, however, what happened instead was considerably less noble. I simply gave up.

It's no matter, though. As it turned out, a month later, I not only survived sewing class, but also discovered a delightful new hobby. Which leads me to today. Digging through the closet and tracking down a long-lost bag of leftover felt, I now had the goods to make a cover for my iPad. And so, I spent a good portion of the afternoon and evening figuring out how to make it work, and I'm well on my way to having a completed project. The device even fits in there and everything! All that remains now is the addition of some decorative, yet functional touches. But I'll save that for another day. . .

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Some Might Call it a Spring Walk

Today my 4 percent came in the form a walk around the neighborhood with my husband. That sounds like such a simple thing, but for those of us who've been cooped up inside since November, a stroll outiside still feels like a precious gift. As someone who grew up in Texas, I have trouble calling this hangover weather 'spring,' but in the decade I've been here, I've become Minnesotan enough to feel, in every cell of my body, the desperate gratefulness that accompanies a 50-degree day, even a cloudy, mostly-grey one like today. (Evidence of this year's snow STILL hangs on, now reduced to puddles in our alley.)

So, thank God for the ability to get out and walk. My hubby and I had plenty to talk about, actually, not all of it particularly fun. I think it took me 45 minutes to work through something that's been on my mind (do I have a patient husband or what?), but by the end, I'd come to a good place. I knew there was hope for me, when, in the middle of a point I was trying (insistently) to make, we walked by the most inviting yard. "Just look at those chairs! And the landscaping," I interrupted myself to say. And it WAS quite artfully done.

There's something to be said for taking the time fo focus on each other, talking things out so they don't fester, naming our hopes and fears, and appreciating our sweet neighborhood. On this, my quest for finding the things that matter, I'll take a simple walk . . . any day.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Most Comforting, Evil Thing

This evening, I'm quite certain I discovered the most comforting, evil thing in the world: garlic frites with herb aioli. This isn't your average plate of fries--no ma'am! Each individual is a masterpiece of salty warmth, with fresh bits of garlic hanging on just so. The heaping plate of loveliness is accompanied by a little ramekin of herb aioli, thick and creamy and homemade just right. It doesn't hurt that I got to enjoy the experience at a neighborhood bistro just blocks from my house. For three years, I've heard it's packed with locals every night, and I'm happy to have finally put an end to my curious wondering. What can I say? It was wonderful.

But here's the thing. Just over two years ago, I weighed 20 pounds more than I do now. It took seven months to lose that weight, and I have deep appreciation for how I feel now. Getting from there to here required the classic, non-sexy combination of regular exercise and counting calories. Decidedly NOT a person who willingly signs up for such things as calorie-tracking--before beginning I feared it would crush my soul--I had to be coaxed into the process, gently, very gently. For this I remain grateful to Mireille Guiliano and her French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secrets of Eating for Pleasure.

The book worked because I happen to agree, heartily, with her philosophy. "Assuming successful recasting," she encourages, ". . . you'd like to enjoy something ultraluscious with a bit more regularity . . . Guess what: You've earned it!" But then, of course, she goes on to say, "When you add an indulgence, make a corresponding reduction to compensate." Picking up the book again tonight helps me remember not to feel guilty about those lovely (evil) fries, but instead, to appreciate them truly, along with my workout to come tomorrow.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Round Table

I started this blog less than a week ago, and I'm already worrying that my goals aren't lofty enough, my thoughts aren't wise enough. So just now I had to reel myself in and remember my purpose: to scrape an hour out of my day and spend it on the good stuff of life. That's all. It's not about writing a life-changing treatise with each and every post. Instead, I must take the long view and see what happens if It take a tiny step every day, for enough days to signify a change in habit. Maybe, if I string enough hours together, they will add up to something new.

So, onto one way I want spend my 4 percent: Surround myself with inspiration. This week, I have a few successes to report. First, the process of starting a blog forced me to do a little research, which turned out to be a happy errand. I liked the idea of starting with a quotation to set the tone. I knew what I was looking for--an expression of the proactivity I sought, something like, "How you spend your hours is how you spend your life," only prettier. I ended up browsing the work of poets (including my favorite, Naomi Shihab Nye, whose "Happiness" makes me smile), essayists (my fave has always been Joan Didion, and I simply had to re-read her powerful "Why I Write"), and bloggers (a friend recently introduced me to "The Happiness Project," where I'd like to spend more time). In the end, I found what I was looking for in a lovely book on my shelf--a self-help of sorts for aesthetic types like me--Life Is a Verb: 37 Days to Wake Up, Be Mindful, and Live Intentionally by Patti Digh. If you're looking to live with more intention, I urge you to check it out. I love the fact I didn't even have to leave my couch to discover these things.

Next, I got to spend the following day with two girlfriends who inspire me. As it happens, each of the three of us has a new project in the works (along with alarmingly similar patterns of anxiety), and I'm honored I got to hang in the coffee shop with them, dreaming together at our little round table. I have no sense for how long we sat there, encouraging each others' plans, unaware of those who may have been coming and going around us. In fact I didn't notice a thing, till one of them struck up a conversation with the woman at the table next to us, who happened to be reading a Choose Your Own Adventure, the old-school kind, the real deal. Evidently she'd found it on the shelf by her table. "I hope my friends get stalled in line," she quipped, "I haven't even gotten to choose an adventure yet!"

If adventures can, in fact, become ours to choose, then, "Onward," I say, "Onward."

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Sliver of Peace

This blog came into being several nights ago, late, as I stared mindlessly at my Facebook page. I'd already watched my requisite hours of TV, feeling too drained to come up with any other alternatives. This routine had gone on for days, and I was tired of being tired. But just then, an unexpected thing happened. I came across a blog link one of my coworkers had posted, "How to Steal Like An Artist (and 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)" by Austin Kleon. Within 30 seconds of my finishing the article, a sentence emerged from somewhere deep in my being: "I want to live like this."

"I want to live like this." Can you think of a statement more full of promise? Even now, I like the way this mingling of words feels, as though it almost floats. I once had a colleague who said she'd "seel" words, especially colors, meaning she'd see and feel them at the same time. I've always been a practical type, and I don't envision becoming a "seeler" anytime soon. Even so, I like the idea that, just this once, I actually know what she meant.

And so, here I sit, wondering at something, inviting others to wonder with me. Like Austin Kleon, I'm grateful to be alive right now, in a world with such possibility for connection. Okay, granted, only 3 people besides me even know this blog exists, but already there's a sliver of peace.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Can Writing Cure a Neurotic?

When did I become so neurotic? And is there a cure? And even if there were, would I want to take it? Today was a little rough. One of my goals for this blog is to reach out of the living room and into my world more. I have to admit I'm a sucker for local community events, and I was excited to receive a recent invitation from our neighborhood association to a session on energy efficiency. I happily put it on the calendar several weeks ago, ready to meet new people, improve our home, shake up my routine a bit, and become a better citizen, keeping overblown expectations entirely in check, of course.

So who would like to venture a guess as to whether or not I actually attended? As it happens I became so consumed with a problem I've been trying to solve since yesterday--something I was utterly convinced would take an easy two hours tops--that I missed the event. Now, after 3 hours each last night and tonight, sandwiched around an hour and half this morning, the immediate problem is solved. I want to be happy about this, and I kind of am, but it came at a price. All day I moped around about it, then I instantly launched into solution mode the minute I came home, plowing past everything in my way, including my sweet husband, who knew I was out of sorts today and tried to help me talk. "Look, I can't think about anything else till this is done," I harumphed, and in the end I proved true to my (inappropriately ill-timed) word.

What I want to know is this: When did being a problem-solver turn into such a distorted, demanding little monkey, with cymbals clashing and crazy eyes? (A song about a cymbal-smashing monkey came on The Current on the way home, and I realized that's exactly how I felt.) Clearly, my quest for the elusive 4 percent--the intentional choice to focus on the good stuff of life--continues. . .

Monday, April 4, 2011

Why I (Want to) Write

If I were at peace with my life, I wouldn't be compelled to write. I've always loved writing--I have vivid memories of the luminous black-and-white book of drawings that sparked stories in my 5th-grade fiction workshop--but I'm also a person who dearly loves her free time and (as my husband will tell you) does not like being told what to do. The idea of forcing myself to sit down and write every day intimidates the heck out of me. Even today, just Day 2, I felt the will slowly slipping away as I charged through my day.

It went a little something like this. Wake up (after a full night's sleep--hallelujah! Have I mentioned I'm a raging insomniac?) Ride the bike while watching "The Biggest Loser." Feel inspired by the soaring military music and today's contestant's boxing-induced realization that, yes, even he, is worthy of love. Drive to work, taking in 30 minutes' worth of the stubborn-grey, "it's no longer winter but it still a'int spring" landscape every Minnesotan knows. (It's April 4, for crying out loud. What would it harm to let us see a patch of grass?) Put in 8 hours at the job I've always said is the most rewarding and the most dysfunctional one I've ever had. (I ought to know. I've been there 9 years.) Come home, barely pull together a plate of (unfortunately flavorless) lentil tacos. Spend 3 hours working on something I resent and don't want to talk about right now. Then, finally, at 10:00 p.m., decide whether to a) start the blog or b) turn on some Housewives. (Hey, I'm not proud of it.)

Initially, I went with Option B but only made it 8 minutes before turning it off and starting to write. Okay, I admit it, I actually only managed to pause the TV--somehow comforted by the frozen presence of the frilly, purple-bloused possibility of escapism just in front of my face. Even so, there's a reason I want to do this instead--the harder, more disciplined, inescapably riskier thing. Until this weekend I'd never heard of Tuli Kupferberg, but I very much want to believe what she (he?) had to say. I wasn't messing around when I selected Tuli's quote to anchor this blog.

"When patterns are broken," Tuli evidently said, "new worlds emerge." If I try this experiment, can it really happen to me? I think so, and that's why I'm here, still writing, even on Day 2.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A beginning.

What would happen if you devoted an hour of your day--4 percent of it--to the parts of your life that matter? I've decided to find out. Exploring this question, of course, means something different for each of us. Here is what it means to me.

On the simplest level, I can sum it up this way: Step away from the TiVo. At the end of a long day, I often want nothing more than to sink into our (new, cozy, extra-wide) couch and let someone else do all the thinking for awhile. And I'm okay with this. On any given day, that is. But when I look back over the last three years and picture my dinners, an alarming number of them involve the Table Mate II. Perhaps you know it, the special kind of tray that slides right in and provides unfettered access to your latest bowl of spaghetti. I knew it was tacky when I bought it--plastic designed to look like wood should always be grounds for immediate dismissal--but I simply couldn't argue with the sheer functionality of the thing. And just as I'd predicted, the tray has become a trusted companion, adjusting to my every height-related need.

So . . . watching less TV is a goal for me, and I hope this blog can help me achieve it. But that's not entirely why I'm here. I'm forever compelled by quotations such as this: "You become what you think about." I like that idea, that every day I get to choose who and what surrounds me. And, simply put, I'm tired of being tired. Instead, why not focus on the things that matter? If I can actually pull it off, drawing a box around an hour and filling it with the good stuff, I hope it will include these things:

  • Discovering my community
  • Surrounding myself with "doers."
  • Helping someone else
  • Creating something
  • Appreciating good food
  • Opening myself to spirituality
  • Learning from fellow seekers

Here's to giving it a try. Here's to finding 4 percent . . .