The Art of Letting Go

Restraints

A friend of mine broke her finger a few weeks ago. She was at the dog park and ready to leave when her lab decided to romp with the new batch of dogs arriving. He lunged playfully toward them and she instinctively pulled on the leash, forgetting for a moment they were in an enclosed space and it was safe to let go. That brief tug of war found the leash wrapped around her fourth finger, fracturing it. Had she released him, the worse thing is her dog would’ve played longer dragging its leash and she’d leave later than she wanted. Holding on, she endured a lot of pain and trouble, and now weeks later is still feeling the effects.

I similarly tussled with a lead, but it was a ski rope years ago when I was first learning. Friends in the boat taught me the circular arm motion to signal I wanted to turn around and go back, and the thumb up or down was to go faster or slower. I didn’t get up the first few times, but eventually I did. The one instruction I didn’t have but wish I’d been given (and which I now readily pass on) is to let go of the rope. Letting go wasn’t instinctive for me, like it is for most people, and after an impressive loop around the lake, I went down. Water rushed in and travelled so high up my nose my brain hurt. I held on for dear life, a soggy deflated dinghy being dragged against its will. I’m not sure if it was 30 seconds or just a few, but it felt like an eternity. You may be laughing right about now, but it was terrifying being dragged and not knowing how to stop it or if it would end at all. Somehow, I ended up releasing my grip and in that instant, everything changed: the noise melted away, I was perfectly still, and my friends returned.

Expectations

As a child, growing up we went to church downtown most every Sunday. There was a lot to do to get ready: the hair braiding, dress pressing, patent leather shoe locating, rushing around for this and that – and that was just my part of the 5-person family routine. This all after a packed week of school and tennis practice and homework and getting up early every other Saturday to clean my grandmother’s apartment. At church I was all in: I sang in the choir, did the father daughter offering collection and became confirmed. I especially loved working in the soup kitchen, feeding all those hungry grateful people, and later myself nibbling on crunchy buttered toast leftover from breakfast. Each Sunday my family would arrive at church all pressed and pretty, but we kids grew tired of revving up for this mandatory rushed routine. Now with children of my own, I’ve watched as other families have settled into their church ritual, hunting down boys’ khakis to replace their preferred sweat pants and girls posing after church outside in sweet Easter dresses and cuffed lacey socks, now slouched and at different heights. I always felt a little guilty we weren’t regulars at church, but I’ve let go of that image as how our Sundays ought to be. We are happy with our once or twice a year visit. It’s joyful and hopeful, especially at Christmas and Easter, and it works for us. We don’t have to go every Sunday to benefit or to belong. We can let that go.

Control

When my second child was born, I was determined to give birth naturally since I hadn’t with my first. I kept nervously watching the clock as my chances for an epidural diminished with each passing hour. I worked hard breathing through the pain, recovering and then gearing up for the next contraction, which was always near. Finally, the baby was coming and there was no more control, no more knowing what was ahead or even thinking about what to watch for. This was a free fall from an airplane without the promise of a parachute, I was in the first car on a roller coaster with a bottomless track, this was blind trust. I writhed, I shook, I screamed and then it was over. Actually, it was just beginning. The shaking stopped and I opened my eyes and held my sweet swaddled baby boy. I had let go, stopped watching the clock and let my body open up for my baby. And what do you know? It did exactly what it needed to do. And did it perfectly.

Things

Recently I sold a drop leaf table that belonged to my parents. We used it in our own kitchen and it served us well for years.  In time, though, the sentiment had become less sentimental since they had divorced and were now both deceased, and with so many dark wooden cabinets in our kitchen, the table’s dark color felt overwhelming and drab. When I finally did a light renovation of our kitchen, removing wallpaper and painting, I found another table that worked better in the room. Moving on from the rectangular and traditional honey maple table, the new one was round and painted white, and chairs tucked under it neatly. As I moved the old table into another room and brought in the new one, I realized I had held on to this furniture probably longer than I should have, longer than I enjoyed it for and it never felt like my own taste. That it was a family piece, that my parents loved it in some ways pressured me into believing I needed to use it as they had. After much debate, we agreed to let it go and a nice woman bought it for a fair price. I helped her move it to her car and as she drove away, the weight lifted. No worries of storing it or working it into our already crowded rooms. Someone else would now love it just like my parents had. And that was ok.

Friendships

In the last few years I’ve seen several friendships change, relationships I was certain never would. I’ve spent time replaying conversations and emails and texts trying to understand their evolution and how I can be kinder, a better listener and less critical of others and myself. For years I’ve held tight to how things used to be, yet I’m realizing these friendships are evolving as things naturally do. The conversations are different, the emails are fewer or less predictable, and the frequent need to connect has been replaced with busier schedules, time apart and new friendships forged. Some relationships move in a different direction and it might be time to let go a little and see what unfolds.

Family

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It’s a happy coincidence that I chose to post this blog today, February 27th, my son’s 18th birthday. This will be a year of letting go for me, for all of us. As he heads off to college, there will be the inclination to hold on just a little longer, a little tighter. But as much as I love and will miss him, I love him enough to let him go. I will be watching him fly to new and interesting places and heights. Just like the butterflies we had years ago that grew from larvae. Seeing them evolve into colorful butterflies was spectacular, yet the day they left to explore the world on their own was bittersweet. Just as it was watching the baby birds fly from their nest tucked in our porch soffit. These birds I had watched each day, and I noticed when their egg first cracked open and a determined beak poked through.

Letting go is not just about our stuff or situations. It’s about doing away with views of how things should be, how they could look or trying to talk yourself into something you know down deep you don’t want or never did. It’s about uncurling your fists long enough to release your fingers and wrap them around what you decide is next. It’s about not always looking back so you don’t miss what’s ahead. It’s the best of both worlds, really. One door closes, another opens.

 

Lamb Vindaloo… who knew?

IMG_5877Back when they first opened stores in Atlanta some 12 years ago, I wasn’t one of the early ones in line, excited to check out this California-based newfangled place with cedarplank walls and tasting stations, where the bell ringing checkout people dressed in Hawaiian shirts. I suppose I like Jimmy Buffet and carefree island living, but this is land-locked Atlanta and let’s just get our groceries and get on with it. The cynic in me wondered what were these employees hiding behind their energized smiles, easy breezy floral shirts and hyper happy approach to selling food? And exactly why were they trying to involve me? They reminded me of what I thought Disney World was like, where everyone is waving and happy, and the always blooming flowers never need water. Where the promise that the magic will sprinkle over me too is real, if I can only believe. Like Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

I generally like to keep a low profile when buying groceries and get in and out quickly and unnoticed. Yet the only thing these people full of company culture and tasty samples wanted was to share the love. Friends did too, and when they learned I still hadn’t gone, they couldn’t process why I’d rob myself of this experience any longer.

I kept running into people who had been drinking this island-spiked Kool-Aid and who were transformed; they’d seen a revolutionary shopping experience, and they were all in. I insisted on being contrary and instead stayed away. It was like when the movie Dances with Wolves came out and everyone immediately ran out to see it and then gushed over the film. I couldn’t bring myself to sign up for the 3-hour and 56-minute epic that everyone insisted I see, despite the extended time to enjoy looking at Kevin Costner. He won me over in Field of Dreams the year before, but beyond the crazy popularity of this way too long film, I didn’t want to deal with potential disappointment seeing him in a lesser role.

I did go into this store a few times and felt a little out of place, as I didn’t feel shiny and happy and wasn’t going to allow any joy to wash over me. The experience was lost on me and it seemed I shouldn’t be there. Hell bent on discovering this place solo through my own lens, I picked up only the bare essentials each time working from my list, which meant skipping the sample stations and the quippy descriptions next to various signature products. I wanted to save money and come away with good food but was resistant to leaning into the experience despite the hold this place had on everyone — restaurant foodies, fast foodies, even non-foodies, and serious home cooks too.

After a few more visits that left me both over- and under-whelmed, I went back to my usual nearby stores, a fabulous but freezing super stocked world farmers market and the consistent customer-focused Florida based grocery chain where shopping is a pleasure. I cooked a lot – then and now — and was averse to buying packaged food experiences to stow in my freezer, even though with all the talk, these were beginning to sound like actual players. Maybe I worried by stocking these items, I’d get lazy with my cooking from scratch and move toward the easy freezer to microwave dinner dance so many choose. Not sure who I was trying to impress, other than myself.

More months passed, and more chatter about these great prepared foods, organic produce, breads and flowers, yada yada, so I returned to try again. I saw surprisingly affordable gorgeous cut flower bouquets, tiny pots with healthy shoots and buds about to bloom, and enormous eucalyptus stems — the rare flat leaf variety you only find at a florist, and once I reached for a bunch to take home, it seems I, too, was smitten.

The breads came next and a chocolate Brooklyn babka was calling my name. It wasn’t their last babka, but it was my first. You just can’t beat a babka, can you?  Next up along the produce aisle were the hard to find haricot vert, the skinny tender perfect green beans. Prebagged with dozens neatly stacked inside, these beans were a gorgeous healthy green, with pointy tips intact. I found plenty of loose organic produce, too, and other packaged items, which unlike that from other stores looked surprisingly fresh. Moving along, I started filling my cart as I mentally tabulated future menus. There was peppered turkey bacon to try and other interesting meats, with no shortage of affordable organic options.

I rounded the corner through dairy (btw thrice I’ve bought 2% organic milk here to find it“not quite right,” so don’t recommend) and onto the frozen foods, and the noise of the bells, chatter and cartoon-like signage began to sink into the background, and the foods came into focus. I began taking the advice of hand-scrawled tags taped to shelf edges, which gave a personal rating of the inventory, like liquor stores do in their wine aisles. I passed gorgeous butternut squash ravioli and arugula parmigiano reggiano ravioli in the refrigerated section, which I’ve bought repeatedly. Get them and enjoy with a green salad and glass of wine and someone to share.

A friend raved about the organic coffee and like a kid in a candy store, I stood on tiptoes reaching for this and scores of other things I couldn’t wait to bring home and try. I liked the can graphics and could almost smell the grounds; imagining my next pot of coffee made me incredibly happy. There were shampoos, too, and minimal ingredient soaps, which I also grabbed. It was like you were on a game show and they told you to fill your cart with whichever items you want in 45 minutes, with a challenge that you couldn’t exceed $200. This is easier here than you may think as just once in all my years of going have I exceeded $200, despite an impressive effort.

The frozen section was filled with those I don’t have time to cook and this is actually tasty boxed and bagged entrees. Mandarin orange chicken, that dark meat-only sweet and sour dish that you don’t really love, but your kids adore, takes just 25 minutes to make, including your own rice you cook separately. Lemongrass sticks, chicken chile verde burritos and chicken cilantro mini wontons (yes, we eat too much chicken) all are lined up flirting with you to take them home. And you do.

Probably la crème de la crème of freezer items for me are three things. 1) Trader Giotti’s (seriously folks, imported from Italy) generous personal sized cheese pizza, with sliced tomatoes and, get this, it’s gluten free! Believe me, I adore traditional gluten pizzas, but this stands apart from their other pies. Lovely cornmeal dusts the bottom of the crust and the tomatoes taste like summer; it’s simply amazing. Didn’t see it last time I went, though, and praying they haven’t discontinued this, as they have several items I adored. 2) Chocolate Croissants. These, folks, are Christmas morning breakfast worthy but enjoy them anytime. You sit them out the night before, they rise a little and then you bake them the next morning. Seriously good. Not over-chocolatey, no harsh bitter dark chocolate taste, either. Just perfection, plain and simple. 3) Lamb Vindaloo. You’ve had vindaloo and love it in restaurants. And you may be one of those rare birds that love lamb, like me. Often lamb dishes require that you edit the meat, spend loads of time cutting the fat away only to discover that you’re left with little meat to eat. This dish is spiced perfectly and has loads of big chunks of pre-edited lamb that is succulent and ever so perfect. Get it and savor it. And for god’s sake if you don’t like lamb, you really need to, for this dish alone will convert you.

Next up, loads of nuts – raw, roasted or salted — were gorgeous and easy enough, and further down the aisle, good quality store brand crackers and cereal challenged me with more decisions to make. There was a good sized wine section including the famous two buck chuck variety, but I never have explored their wines except once when I bought a $5 bottle. Suffice it to say, you get what you pay for. Learn the wines or skip ‘em.

In the store’s back corner they were giving out coffee cake samples – made from a box! – which were divine as is their boxed gingerbread. Seriously, don’t bother trying to replicate the gingerbread from scratch. Make it and get their lemon curd and some cream cheese and go to town. And there was free coffee with cream, with which to swallow it down. No pressure to buy. Just bask in the love.

Fast forward to just the other day when I had time to kill and needed a little birthday gift for a dear family friend. Just inside the door there it was, a $2.99 baby daffodil plant with one beautiful open and fragrant bloom and others on the way, perfect to go with the card I already had. Of course, since I was there I had to pick up a few things. Another chocolate babka (it had been a while since I’d eaten one or watched a Seinfeld for that matter), more peppered turkey bacon, bagged organic apples (nary a dent!), bagged oranges and enormous croissants made with half a dozen ingredients, if that.

As I left with a cart carrying double bagged perfectly packed brown grocery bags, the cashier I’d seen for years sent me off with a “Take care, love” goodbye and off I went, carrying and sharing the love until I return to Trader Joe’s next time.

Why review a place that’s been here for so many years? I think I’m reviewing myself more, looking around and realizing it’s time to participate. Sharing our lenses on life and food and love is far more delicious that living inside ourselves. Because at the end of the day we all want the same things, don’t we? Like my friends have for years, these days I often trade Trader Joe’s stories and give and get new ideas on wonderful foods to choose. Would love to hear your favorites, too, so feel free to leave a comment. With love, S.