Simmer down

doorway

It’s that time of the year when the world falls in love. The simple act of wrapping up a gift and giving it, and the delight once it’s opened. Waking up Christmas morning, coming down the stairs. Traditions, togetherness, decorating, lights. It’s sharing, it’s connecting, it’s a moment you want to relive over and over.

Christmas is extraordinary. As the calendar moves down to the end of the year, we send friends off into the season with our good wishes, hugging them goodbye before the holidays hit — big long hugs like you mean it, because you do. It’s ok to linger on these; it’s Christmas for crying out loud.

When we give out these hugs, these bursts of love, what are we wishing others and what are we wishing for? Is it the silent sparkling night that is Christmas Eve and that quiet pre-dawn grace that comes to blanket the next morning? Hope is packaged up in all sorts of forms getting us to and through these holidays, holy days, giving us a new start. It’s not a package, it’s a feeling. It’s not a present, it’s presence.

It’s different this time of year. Most mornings leading up to Christmas I find ornaments on the floor and ribbons missing from packages. The cat is having a ball after we go to sleep. Nothing is broken. It’s ok.

Earlier this month I pulled up to the post office mailbox struggling to push my bills in the slot overflowing with cards – gorgeous red white and gold envelopes all vying for a place in the mail. With so many good wishes pushing through to get where they want to go, my annoyance melted away and I realized people are good natured at their core and they want to send love.

A few weeks before Christmas as I tried wiping down my dirty laptop screen, my fingertips inadvertently swiped the Spotify icon and Santa Baby came through the speakers. I couldn’t figure it out and uncomfortably rushed to quiet it, the noise I didn’t start. But I realized it’s here, the season, and I should pay attention, listen even. I let Christmas songs fill up the room, not knowing what was coming next. I didn’t choose this; it chose me, and I went along for the ride.

Each year around Thanksgiving, Christmas comes in like a lamb, ramps up like a lion and then tiptoes back out as a lamb. Come and gone in a twinkle, the season can be a bumpy sleigh ride juggling Christmas balls, bills and bonbons and gearing up for full throttle acceleration and the exciting skating skid into Christmas. A slow simmer dances into a rolling boil, then a simmer and a sputtering flame and it’s a wrap. We’re all done with wrapping, baking, eating and drinking and are left cozy and content. We stand there in those precious moments slack jawed at the astonishing beauty around us and the enormous dollop of gratitude swirling in the air that seemingly came out of nowhere. And which quietly ushers its way out.

Now we’re at the bottom of the calendar, the end of the year, which so recently felt merry and bright, and we’re left basking in the afterglow we know is fading. With Christmas now behind us, how can we keep that low simmer going, those good feelings in the warming drawer waiting for us when we are ready to slow down and nourish ourselves and each another? Surely they’re still there, aren’t they?

It is Boxing Day today, the day after Christmas which in the UK was traditionally a day off for servants and the day when they received a Christmas Box, a Present, from the master. The servants would also go home on Boxing Day to give Christmas Boxes to their families. It’s a day of giving, reflecting, celebrating and sharing the abundance you have to give.

My Christmas Box to you is that you find more presence with loved ones, friends, family and most importantly, yourself. Love to you this season and the next and the next. Let’s keep it going. Merry everything.

the eye

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Self Care

It’s here! December, in all its glory: eggnog, sugar plums, peppermints and parties. Will you make the naughty list or the nice? Will you yield to temptation but deliver yourself in January? I’m reminded of a hand towel I saw in a store downtown which read, “Don’t blame the holidays, you were fat in August.” How’s that for encouragement?

Every Christmas I make batches and batches of cookies, usually my favorites, with the idea that I’m giving them as gifts, which I actually do.  As I bake, though, I nibble on the dough and then the warm cookies, which sets my palate into a no filter overdrive, which means now anything goes — cheese straws, gingerbread or maybe even Bailey’s over ice, which is oh so nice. Dinner goes by the wayside and it looks like snacking is the menu until bedtime.

Each year I put exercise clothes on my list, because while I don’t particularly like walking my dog in the cold, I’m convinced I’m going to get out there if I have on new gear — the new me, a veritable page out of Athleta. We promise ourselves loads of things and envision our return to our 20-something bodies, yet we keep right on eating whatever is within reach. And let me assure you, there’s a lot.

Don’t blame the holidays. You were fat in August.

This past October I changed things up. I’d been hearing about the Whole 30 program from several friends who all attested to being noticeably transformed by their month-long  journeys, so I wanted in. Not sure what I was looking for, but I needed a reset from summer travels and eating and drinking too much and moving my son into college. This plan isn’t for everyone and definitely not for those who can’t say au revoir to alcohol, sugar, grains, dairy, gluten and legumes for four (yes, we’re talking consecutive) weeks. Basically, it’s goodbye to your old life. Everything you typically touch is pretty much on that list, that is, unless you follow this plan.

What I assumed was going to be the biggest concession was actually the easiest. I switched from 2% milk in my coffee to unsweetened almond milk, and it was surprisingly better than tolerable. It just worked. No sacrifice there. Alcohol was a different matter. I hadn’t realized how often I’d included that glass of wine or two while I was cooking, catching up with friends on weekends or always accepting the glass my husband poured me at night after dinner. I needed a stand-in and craving mojitos, I muddled mint into club soda squeezing in lots of lime. This worked at home and out in bars, which still had mint on hand from summer drink menus. Out, I fit right in, “cocktail” in hand.

I discovered the secret was feeling full, and the less deprived I felt, the better. Potatoes were allowed on the plan, and I used my potato peeler daily. I added onions and red bell pepper and folded them into omelets or alongside sautéed steak and garlic at dinner. Sweet potatoes were good too, and I mostly ate them roasted because to enjoy a baked sweet, you need a generous pat of real butter, off the list this month. Another memorable meal was Brussels sprouts sautéed with crumbled Whole Foods sugar free sausage. I drank loads of water, too, and that filled me up. Handfuls of cashews covered the sugar and fat cravings I had, and over the month I went through an entire Costco jar.

Salads made the menu most days and I got creative adding sunflower seeds, chopped avocado, red onion, and roasted meat or fish. Over and over there were gorgeous meals which I found myself photographing before inhaling. I treated myself to the really good tomatoes from Whole Foods – true stand-ins for homegrown – and haricot vert and organic potatoes from there too. Ghee was my clarified “butter” and along with olive oil, my foods were for the most part lubed. Avocado was great for adding the fat and creaminess I craved, and I had good luck over the month finding them ripe and ready.

I discovered the secret was feeling full.

I rolled along still challenged until the half way point which was the month’s sweet spot. I felt the accomplishment behind me and it seemed all downhill from here. However, coasting into week three found me tired of the rotation of foods with little hope for change. I felt hungry and the fistfuls of cashews weren’t getting it done. I knew what I wanted, something so perfect, so easy, so off my list. I wanted pizza, just a slice, but a really good one. I ignored my cravings and rounded week three, planning what I might eat when I could let myself out of this maze.

You aren’t supposed to weigh yourself during the month and I didn’t. At the end I had lost four pounds, less than I thought, but four pounds is four pounds. The weight came off the hard to lose areas, which for me were my outer thighs. I got narrower over the month and clothes fit differently, which was great. Lying in bed at night I could feel my ribs and trace the outline of my entire rib cage. My stomach was still soft (Pilates is always ready when I am), but it had definitely flattened and as for my digestion, my system was textbook. Every. Single. Day.

When the month ended, I was proud of the work I put into each meal. There had been no packaged foods, no quick grabbing of kettle chips (Non-GMO and all), no standing with the refrigerator door open eating slices of Swiss cheese, no looking for something to fill the void. No buns with my burgers, no yogurt in my smoothies, no corn, no bean burritos. Everyone around me was eating normally and I found I didn’t envy them but preferred my approach — the big salads and gorgeous avocados and omelets and seeds and such. Afterward, I wasn’t particularly overjoyed returning to “regular” eating and never did find that perfect slice. I eased back in slowly but didn’t notice any major food intolerances, though I was more bloated after pasta and legumes than before.

Now December and the holidays are here. I think I’m ready to take on the baking, the eggnog, all of it and come out the other side just fine. The secret will be moderation and adding exercise, proven advice I’m returning to. I couldn’t juggle the Whole 30 and exercise because it’s just too much. I don’t need white bread and sugar but when I do have some, I’m going to be selective and it is going to be good. Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures and this program reinforced that. If you frequently fill your plate with colorful foods that you sliced and roasted and prepared yourself with gorgeous garlic and herbs and seeds, and then sit down and let it nourish your precious body, you might find you feel cared for. Loved even.

Happy holidays.

tomato

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home Again

I am a nester. Every house I’ve lived in, every apartment I’ve rented, each space I’ve occupied is in me still. Moving through them, living and sleeping in them, you can’t help but take on a sense, a flow, an inimitable soul that sticks to you long after you go. It’s a smell, a memory, a repeating loop of sights and sounds. Hardwoods creaking, a daddy long leg in the tub drain, calloused feet walking down a gravel driveway, the orange glow of ceramic heater tiles, getting mail with a key, watching summer rain from a screened porch, I can’t shake these memories, and I wouldn’t want to.

Growing up I treated my room like my apartment and rearranged my twin beds into various configurations, switched out the plants in pots clamped around my standing lamp. Things on the felt bulletin board over my desk could easily come and go which minimized my mom’s don’t put holes in our wallslecture when I’d occasionally want to hang things outside of my supplied rectangle, and then of course move them, too. Eighteen years there started my itch to change up and play with my space and set me on a lifelong course of doing it. I eventually moved away as did my parents who divorced and sold the house. Now a girl from my high school lives there and they’ve changed it to suit their own family. I still want to roam those woods (that have been replaced with a lawn) and look out those windows again and wonder. Even though my parents have long ago passed, these memories stay present.

As a little girl, I remember reading The Little House, a book about a well-loved house perched on a hill with sloped grass and shade trees, and the challenges it faced needing love and care. Its illustrations showed carefree children romping around it amid a colorful changing seasons backdrop, and as it gave its all year after year, each occupant was better for it. It had a soul and you rooted for it as you saw the city began to surround it and disrepair settle in.

randall mill

In summer when we stayed outside late past dark, I’d look up at our own house and get a great sense of security, as if it would be there until the end of time and there was nowhere else that I belonged. The charming tied back curtains’ silhouette in the windows, the zinnias climbing the fence outside and the moon above magically decorated this already warm glowing place. The house was my beacon, wrapping itself around everything I knew and loved.

Leaving a place is weird – you get flooded with memories and the instinct to protect and preserve the space you’ve lived in. I moved from my own little brick house perched on a hill a decade ago, the first home we bought as a couple, yet I vividly remember life there. We knew it had been loved, but a forgotten yard and dowdy avocado trim inside and out said otherwise. Like peeling an onion, we went about undressing it layer by layer, and the kitchen floor alone had five: sheet vinyl, indoor/outdoor carpeting, sheet linoleum, asbestos tiles and the pièce de résistance under it all, hardwoods. Every Sunday we filled the curb with piles of debris which were gone by Monday’s trash pickup. We touched everything, but the moving parts (electrical/plumbing/ hvac) we left to contractors, and we went about undoing shoddy work and restoring the house with our own enthusiastic vision of grace and dignity.

Sixteen years happened in a flash, and as our kids grew and more stuff accumulated, I began to want more elbow room. A big old Victorian house nearby caught my eye. It had good bones and intact details, and so we went for it using equity in our little house to buy the big one. We’ve been loving on it for ten years now in small ways, but it needs more. We’ve hung on to the little house and are now landlords. Every time we list it for rent, I worry that we won’t find a tenant, that we will go months into debt and that we made a terrible mistake. Then out of nowhere someone else inquires, I show the house and things fall into place, those fears tabled until next time.

Each tenant has nudged us in their own way to improve the house, tending to things we overlooked when we were there. And they’ve learned things too: don’t peel a bag of potatoes and think the garbage disposal will cooperate. Don’t install your own home alarm system and think it won’t derail the doorbell we had in place. If you leave the shades down all the time, don’t be surprised if the neighbors wonder. Don’t assume your large SUV will fit in our 8’ driveway and if you do, expect the stone wall to buckle as you back down. Sometimes I glorify the time I spent there and want to move right back and walk into my old life, but I remind myself that home is where I am, and besides it’s fascinating to see others’ vision for life at our house unfold.

So far we’ve had five different tenants. First came the Irishman, G. He had recently split from his wife and our home had a good vibe – the calm he needed after the storm that is divorce. He loved it like we did, and that it was so close to an international farmer’s market. He often entertained, and dinner parties extended his dining table well into the living room. G appreciated the finer things in life. His cappuccino machine was serious, the size of a mini microwave. He turned a small bedroom into his walk-in wardrobe. My boys loved his accent and stories of Ireland when he was a boy there. Unfortunately, G lost his job so couldn’t finish out the year.

Next came S. Also divorced, she had two girls who lived with her part-time and a mom nearby who helped her feather the nest with custom valances and a shower curtain. It was fun to see my son’s former room dressed in pink and white gingham, dollhouses and ballet shoes – with nary a truck in sight! She cooked and entertained too and loved the house, even planting a garden out back. Her boyfriend visited often, and they eventually married. His son slept in my older boy’s room, which now had a tv and cool sports memorabilia on the walls. My boys were envious wishing that’s how their room could have looked, if only I would have allowed a tv. Poor things. After three years, S and her hubby wanted to buy their own house, and so they moved, saying they were sad to leave our house which they’d grown to love.

Next came T with her boyfriend and they quickly signed the lease. Like S and her husband these two were crazy in love and also seemed to enjoy setting up the house together with their two cats, whom I especially liked. It was a cozy haven for them in between going to work, to workout or shopping at the nearby farmer’s market, as our Irish tenant did. They soon became engaged and married several months later. They made the house their own and filled it with family photographs and plants and music. Eventually, they also wanted their own house and found one to buy just a few blocks away.

We found ourselves again on the hunt for a good tenant and had what we thought were serious leads. Some were a “sure” thing, a lawyer who definitely wanted the house and then bailed at the 11thhour – another, a woman who assured us that her ex whom she had mistakenly remarried “shouldn’t be a problem” because she had a court order keeping him away which she “hoped” would be effective. Then an older couple, R and his wife, arrived, tape measures in hand and in love with the place, hoping to be considered if the others didn’t pan out. The others weren’t contenders after all and R and his wife moved in. They loved old houses and ours worked well for them, retired and downsizing. They hired their handyman to pressure wash our driveway (a first!) and garden shed and steps. They brought in their big pie safe and other large dark antiques they’d amassed over the years, and their interior designer arranged their furniture and art. They also loved the nearby market and walkability of our town six miles east of Atlanta. However, nagging health concerns began in their second year and R wanted a walk-in shower and quieter street, so they left for the suburbs.

Once again, I posted the house online and a new renter, P, from western Europe, seemed particularly interested. He took videos of most rooms for his wife who still lived in their city out of town, and they decided after a few weeks that they wanted the place. With two small children and no pets, we had ourselves a deal. Now, it’s lovely inside with their white furniture and European minimalist décor. They’ve already planted a garden and made memories there, decorating for Halloween and now Christmas. Their kids look out the windows and smile and wave when I approach to visit, and they love the house just as we did. Once again, the house is full of new life and energy.

They say you can’t go home again,  but you can invest in the home you’ve got, give it your all and make new memories there. The old ones will come around from time to time, but there are more ahead if you can shift your gaze from behind. The house we gave everything to has returned the favor and become a home for people who are helping to pay our mortgage, allowing us to start over and love on another house. It will be a few years before we can finish everything, but this house, like the others, is ready and willing.

We’re all looking for home. Big or small, lavish or lowly, beyond the obvious protection from the outside, it is so much more. Home seeps into your insides and stays there. There’s no place quite like it.