Monday, August 31, 2015

About Last Month • August 2015

Today I'm linking up with Leigh Kramer to share what's been going on for the past month

Earlier this summer, The Musician and I began dating each other again.  Time had tripped us up, and our relationship had derailed a bit - as marriages do - so we started making more of an effort.  Effort seems like such a silly choice of words though, with its connotation of tedium.  Our dates have been too fun to use the word 'effort' to describe them, but you know what I mean, right?  Sometimes it just takes effort to not collapse on the sofa at the end of the day.

Those dates with my good-looking husband have been fabulous though, and I put a reminder in my monthly calendar to make absolutely sure that we didn't forget to do them more often.  Serendipitously, I was out at dinner with my girlfriends right around that same time, and enjoying a goofy, laughter-filled evening when one of my friends suggested we put it on our calendar to have dinner every month so that we don't forget to do it more often.  So we did it.  We decided then and there that the third Monday of every month was going to be Ladies Night.

Which got me to thinking, if my soul can derive such satisfaction from scheduling more date nights and monthly dinners with my girlfriends, what else can I do monthly that will bring more intentional fun into my life?

Intentional fun.  What a concept.

So I began a monthly list to Things I Should Remember to Do Because I Love to Do Them: date my husband, have dinner with my friends, plan monthly family dates, and schedule a self-care activity each month.

August was the first month that I added in the family dates and the self-care activity, and I have felt almost giddy in taking the time to plan and look forward to these things.  We took the kids tubing on the Chattahoochee River one Saturday, took them kayaking down another river in lieu of schoolwork one day, and reserved a site for an epic camping trip for next month.  For self-care, I finally - at super long last - scheduled an acupuncture session this month and bought a ticket to a yoga workshop at an Atlanta festival for next month.

Intentional fun, it turns out, is what was missing from my life.

The rest of the month has been filled with the hilarious beginnings of a new homeschooling year.  The Princess Hazelnut has begun taking trapeze lessons, the kids have started their classes at the homeschooling co-op, and we're all finding our groove with the schedule changes (and challenges) of a new school year.  The languid days of summer already seem like light years ago.

What I've Been Watching

Absolutely nothing.  I have been spending my evenings either writing or reading, and it has been very restorative.  I go in phases though, so if Netflix or Hulu ever posts last season's episodes of The Good Wife, I'm going to pop up a batch of popcorn, set down my books, and binge watch to my heart's content.

What I've Been Listening To

Jason Isbell released his new album, and streaming it on NPR's First Listen finally spurred me on to purchase his last album, Southeastern.  I swear he's the best songwriter around right now.

I've also just discovered Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons podcast, and I am devouring the episodes that have been recorded so far.  To call them inspiring is to put it in the mildest terms possible.

What I've Been Reading

I just finished Stephen King's 11/22/63 last night (very late last night), and my mind is officially blown.  I could hardly put it down over the past couple of days, and it might just go down as the best book I've read this year - all 880 pages of it.  I wish it had been twice as long.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Kale & White Bean Risotto

I love this recipe so much that I'm willing to overlook my embarrassment over this less-than-flattering photograph of the meal.   I would totally take another picture right now, in better light, and with a better camera than my iPhone, but both children greedily slurped up second helpings and scraped the pan clean before I could take a second shot.

It's that good.

I mean, it's so good that two young children fight over the last few bites even though there are copious amounts of kale involved.

More impressive than how delicious it is though, is how utterly easy it is.  Risotto is often shunned because of its fussy preparation with the constant stirring, the slow addition of liquid, and the stickiness that occurs when one of the steps goes ever-so-slightly wrong.

This recipe is like risotto for dummies.  There is no constant stirring, no slow addition of liquid - you quite literally dump everything in at once, plunk the lid down on the pot, and walk away.

It is a one-pot, sinfully-easy, extraordinarily-healthy, comfort-food meal, AND ITS DELICIOUS enough to satisfy both children and a meat-eating husband.  I'm telling you, it's magic.  Magic risotto.  Actually, it would be more magical if it were really extraordinarily healthy (I may have stretched the truth a little bit on that claim).  Arborio rice isn't exactly chock-full of nutrients, you know, but it isn't exactly bad for you either.  Let's call it reasonably healthy and just move on.

This is one of my emergency meals, thrown together when we don't get home until 6:00 or so, and I need to start dinner cooking right away, yet still be able to walk away to put away the groceries and change clothes and answer a few emails while it cooks.  It is especially wonderful on those evenings when we're all a little frazzled and need something creamy and soothing for dinner.

The kale and the white beans are tender, but not mushy, and the arborio rice manages to effortlessly melt into that creamy alchemy that happens when the starch disperses into the flavorful broth.  The seasoning is simple - just vegetable broth, sage, and a little salt and pepper.

Sometimes the most surprising results come from the marriage of the simplest ingredients.


KALE AND CANNELLINI BEAN RISOTTO, serves 4 as a main dish

  • 6 to 8 oz kale, stemmed and chopped
  • 1 cup Arborio rice
  • 3/4 tsp dried sage
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 2 Tbs Earth Balance or butter
  • 1 15-oz can cannellini beans (or Great Northern beans)
  1. In a large pot of boiling water, cook the kale over high heat for 3 or 4 minutes, until bright green and wilted.  Drain, and press as much water as possible out of the cooked kale.
  2. In that same pot (because there's no need to wash more dishes than absolutely necessary), combine the cooked & drained kale with the rice, sage, broth, and salt & pepper.  
  3. Bring to a boil, then cover the pan, reduce heat to low, and cook for about 20 minutes.  The rice should be tender, but al dente, when done.  If more liquid is needed to get to al dente, add a tiny bit more water.
  4. Stir the beans into the risotto, turn off the heat, and stir in the butter.  Taste and adjust for salt & pepper.  Serve hot.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Morning Pages

The Artist's Way has been on my bookshelf for the past twenty-something years, if my memory serves me correctly.  I do not recall exactly where I got it from originally.  Bookstore?  Mail-order book club?  Gift?  I dunno.  The early nineties were a long time ago, and the details are fuzzy.  I do distinctly remember that it was on the bookshelf next to my rickety sofa-on-wheels in that tiny studio apartment I lived in during my second year of college.  

And if it was on my shelf in that apartment, then that means I boxed it up and moved it into the next NINE places I lived over the years.  Clearly, it means a lot to me, that book.

Except that I never cracked the cover in all those years and all those moves.

I know.  If it weren't so absurd, it would be embarrassing.  

Over the past few years though, The Artist's Way kept coming up in conversation, on websites, and in social media posts.  Each time, I would have an aha moment, and would then immediately forget about it again.  Recently, as I sat at my desk one afternoon, filled with frustration over how blocked I felt creatively, I leaned back in my chair and glanced towards the bookshelf to the right of my desk, and there it was.  That book.  Just sitting there.  Waiting for me.

If you are unfamiliar with it, The Artist's Way is a bestselling 12-week program designed to break through your creative blocks and to help you find your voice - whether you are a writer, photographer, sculptor, painter, dancer, or whatever.  The two main, non-negotiatible activities at the center of the program are the daily morning pages and the weekly artist date.

The artist date is cool, and I have found inspiration from it, but the impact of the daily morning pages has blown my mind.  Morning pages are designed to be stream-of-consciousness writing, about literally anything that comes to mind, and are not meant to be re-read or shown to anyone else.  Not because they're top-secret or filled with your innermost thoughts, but because what you write in your morning pages is unimportant.

What I have found is that the morning pages acts as a brain dump, allowing me to empty my head of all the tedious and mundane thoughts that occupy entirely too much of my head space and which distract me from what really matters.  Every morning, I brush my teeth, drink my hot lemon water, pour a cup of coffee, and sit down at the kitchen table with my notebook.  I open to a blank page, click my pen, hold it over the page, and even though I cannot think of the first thing to write, the pen begins moving and I fill up three pages in a matter of minutes.  Every time.

Solutions to nagging, boring problems come to me during this time, revelations about emotional hang-ups come easily, and unimportant things over which I have been obsessing lessen in perceived importance once they're put down on paper.  Most surprising, though, is how the rest of the day flows so much more smoothly after I close the notebook, pour another cup of coffee, and get on with the rest of my day.  Without those tedious and mundane thoughts bouncing around in my head like a pinball (and driving me mad), I work more efficiently and find myself better able to avoid pointless distractions.  I focus more clearly on the important tasks in my day, I relax more fully in the evenings, and I sleep better at night.

Mind-blowing, I tell you.  It is as if my brain is being re-trained.  

Whether your goal is to become more creative or not, the value of morning pages cannot be overstated.  Journaling has been shown to have a positive impact on physical well-being, regular writing is known to have mental health benefits, and daily journaling can help you reach your goals.

A fancy hard-cover notebook is unnecessary.  You do not need a special pen.  Your grasp (or lack) of rudimentary spelling and fundamental grammar is utterly beside the point.  The idea is to pick a time each day, whether it is first thing in the morning, over lunch, or before bed, and just do it.  Open the notebook and pour the noise in your brain out onto the page.  Burn the pages after you're done if you would like.  The quality of the writing does not matter.  

Really.  The quality of the writing does not matter.  Just drain your brain.  And then move on.  You just might find, as I did, that you can control your thoughts.  You do not have to dwell on every little thought that pops into your head.  You do not have to obsess over those thoughts that don't deserve your time.  Write them down.  And then move on.

Write it down.  And move on.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Quick Lit • August 2015

From the moment I wake up in the morning, I find myself yearning for that luscious time at the end of the day, when the kids are in bed and The Musician is upstairs in his studio and the whole house is quiet. I wash my face, put on my eyeglasses, fluff up my giant throw pillow, and stretch out full-length on the sofa with a good book and a bowl of popcorn.

It's pure bliss, I tell you, and lately that coveted evening reading time has been filled with a spate of excellent books.  Books so good that I have had to talk myself into going out in the evenings for date nights and other events.

Today, I am linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy to share short & casual snippet-like reviews of the books I have finished over the past month.

I put In the Unlikely Event on hold at the library the day it came out, and it was well worth the month or more wait.  It was wonderful (maybe even a little comforting and nostalgic) to read a Judy Blume book for the first time since adolescence.  This novel reads like a grown-up young adult novel, if that makes any sense.  It has the coming-of-age elements that defined some of her older, beloved books, but is more sweeping in scope.  The true story that it is based on is a fascinating one (of which I was completely unaware until I heard an interview with Blume on NPR earlier this summer).  There are a lot of themes in the book and a dizzying array of characters, but it all works very well.  I not only didn't want it to end, but I may have shed a tear or two on the final page when I had to leave the main narrator behind.

I might be the last person to read The Secret Keeper, and I feel like a dunce for not picking it up a few years sooner.  Don't be fooled by the romantic cover and the silly book jacket description.  This historical novel is so well done, with rich characters, a surprisingly fast pace, excellent sense of time and place, and twists you'll never see coming.  I was so enthralled by this book that I completely forgot about an art event I meant to attend.

Rules of Civility was a stunning debut novel.  Set in New York City in 1938, with a cast of unforgettable characters and a deliciously stylish tone, this book tells the story of one year in the life of an independent and ballsy young lady with a secretarial job and a room in a boardinghouse.  A chance encounter on New Year's Eve with a well-heeled, handsome man changes the trajectory of her life, and the details of the events of the next year make for a compelling and entertaining read.  Many reviewers mention the parallels to The Great Gatsby, and I do not discount that comparison, but I found this book to be much more enthralling.  

Lessons from Madame Chic is a light and quick read with a few useful little nuggets of advice on living a fuller, more sensual life.  It was only slightly interesting though, and is a bit repetitive, as if a few blog posts were expanded in order to have enough material to fill what was already a very short book.

Simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful, Everything I Never Told You deftly handles teenage angst, housewife boredom, marital struggles, race issues, grief, and the decade of the 1970s.  The story is told with a light hand, the dialogue spare and subtle, the reader left to decide which, if any, of the characters to relate to.  

I would love to hear what books you guys have been reading lately.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

The first day of (home)school

There are seasons in life when everything is challenging, seasons when it all flows smoothly and easily, and seasons when we are stuck in ruts.  Lately, it has seemed like a season of having the rug pulled out from under me and forging a new way of living.

The details of a few of these metaphoric rugs are either too boring or too personal to share in a public forum (or are still in flux - God help us all), but the latest rug-yanking incident was a doozy.  

The school year begins quite early in the South, and last week, on the day before our county's public school year began, I received notice that my children's beloved cottage homeschool academy was permanently shutting its doors.

There I was, blissfully going about my day, thinking that we had three weeks before the cottage school year began, and believing I had another easy year ahead of me in which lesson plans would be emailed, science experiments would be done in class, math lessons would be taught by an actual teacher (read: not me), and two days a week in which to focus on my work while the children were on campus.

A single expletive received by text from my girlfriend, also a parent at the cottage school, shattered that illusion and I sat at the breakfast table crying angry, frustrated tears while I read the email from the headmaster.  And then I felt all the feelings.  Was this a neon sign?  Should I rush down to the public school and enroll the children immediately?  Could I even pull that together in time for them to begin public school the very next day?  Could I prepare the kids for that kind of major life change with less than 24 hours notice?

The answer was no, of course. Anytime I find my hand being forced to make a major decision without enough time to think it through in true introverted/introspective fashion, I know the answer is to wait until an answer comes in its own time.  Big life decisions require time, preparation, prayer, research, and wise counsel (and occasionally a nervous breakdown, but that's for another post).  It is likely that The Boy Wonder and Princess Hazelnut will attend regular school at some point, and we discuss the possibility every Spring, but when that day comes, we intend to have plenty of time for the children to get used to the idea first.

So I did what I always do when confronted by something that rocks my well-ordered world: I had a panic attack.  Seriously.  I had trouble breathing, and thought I was going to pass out.

Then I called in my troops.  My BFF was already coming up with a list of alternatives for our children.  My husband talked me down from the ledge.  My mother prayed.  I made a cup of tea, put a little kava kava tincture under my tongue, and threw myself into my work, knowing the best course of action was to keep on keeping on until the initial panic passed.  I kept a notepad next to me, and jotted down ideas as the day went on.

By nightfall we had a brand new, less expensive, extraordinarily cool educational plan in place. 

This year will require some adjustments and some juggling, and a whole slew of new experiences for both the children and for myself.  It is exciting and scary and more than a little unsettling for the parent who likes to know what to expect each day, but if I've learned anything in this season of unsteady rugs being yanked out out from under my comfortable and predictable life, it's that our comfortable and predictable life wasn't serving us well and it was time for a new direction.  Complacency brings boredom and restlessness, not excellence and happiness.

The very next morning, in the middle of the work week, we declared a holiday in order to celebrate the first day of our family's school year.  The four of us slept late, went to Waffle House for breakfast (always an education in itself), and then gleefully kayaked six miles down the river, and it was glorious.  It was invigorating and unusual and outside of our normal routine.

It was perfect.

Here's to new beginnings, and a new way of approaching our foundational family priorities.