Doorways to Gratitude

It seems that more than ever, the world is in need of optimism. There are many things to worry about. Conflict. Our warming planet. Politics. The economy. Enemies, foreign and domestic. Not to mention, our own health, our commutes, our families, our bank accounts, the headaches with the utility company or the Internet service provider or the grocery store that just stopped carrying our favorite brand of coffee.

Stress is endemic. It’s serious enough that it has been recognized as a public health issue by the former U.S. Surgeon General. But this post isn’t about stress. Nor is about forced optimism, an insistence on finding the good in every situation, in calling the glass half full when all evidence points to the contrary.

But I am going to write about gratitude. And I’m going to write about the strangers, friends, and little moments of grace that allow me to feel this. Many of these people changed my life. Sometimes for an afternoon. Sometimes for years.

For example, my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Beason who taught me to read. My college English professor who, upon my graduation, presented me with a book inscribed “Remember to be yourself” – advice which I am still trying to follow.  

There is my former co-worker Charlotte who first talked me into running. With her prompting, I completed my first 5K, and went on to run longer, harder, more challenging races for the next several years. There are the wonderful and witty writers I crossed paths with two summers ago, one of whom collected a couple of us into her red convertible one afternoon to tool around the Hamptons. (Like I was going to say no.) And the women whose names I cannot recall, but under whose tutelage I learned how to ride a motorcycle. 

And sometimes, it is being ourselves, by ourselves, that opens this doorway. The moments we encounter accidentally, but are somehow just the right place, just the right time. Getting up early, resentful of the dark and cold, and then looking up to see the sky cast in a lavender dawn. Walking in the woods and catching sight of two kestrels circling each other, the white feathers of their bellies catching the sunlight. Hearing the wind as it pushes through brown leaves and dry grass.

Because life is improv. We never get the same day twice. Sometimes – maybe most days – we may feel like imposters. But when we find those with whom we may be our authentic selves – and the moments where our authentic selves feel closest –  it is cause for gratitude indeed.

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When to Get a Cat

As I write this, there is a cat on my lap.

Of course, not all people are cat people. But a lot of us are, judging from the number of views of cat videos on the Internet.

Some days, I’m convinced that cat videos are among the best things that the Internet has done for humanity.

Cat videos bring joy. They unite us, even if only for a few minutes. And they’re often downright hilarious.

2018 was a challenging year. But – lest you’re getting worried – this is not a political piece. My last piece of political writing was in 2016, shortly after the election that ushered in the 45th President of the United States.

This is a piece about cats. Yes, they bring chaos, and perhaps there are a few analogies that can be drawn between a household with cats and the current political climate. But while cats create chaos like no other domestic creature I know, they are also irresistible. And unlike politicians, prone to purring on your lap.

So when the going gets tough, the tough get a cat. Or in my case, a second cat. My original feline companion is a cool cat named Hendrix, adopted from a litter of barn kittens in 2014. The farmers assured my husband and I that our new pet was female. Fast forward two weeks later to our first vet visit, and we discovered that kitty is a boy.

Still, Hendrix is a delightful, handsome fellow who enjoys cuddling up to watch period dramas and snuggling in bed on chilly nights. He’s a great editor, as cats are naturally contemptuous of anything superfluous. I love Hendrix. He’s a fantastic cat.

Hendrix critiquing a manuscript.

But when an opportunity came last fall to see another litter of farm kittens in need of homes, I couldn’t say no. And Abby, the most adorable 3-pound tyrant the world has ever seen entered our lives.

Hendrix hated her.

Following the advice of cat blogs, I determined to keep the two cats separated until Hendrix grew more tolerant. Abby had a private establishment in the family room, complete with a bed, food and water, a litter box, toys, and a large window overlooking a bird feeder.

She hated it. And she made her displeasure known. First she screamed. (Yes, kittens can scream.) Then she battered the door with her tiny body as if she meant to break through by force. After a few days of this we relented and gave Abby the run of the house. Gradually – very gradually – Hendrix came to a grudging acceptance. He still steals her food at every opportunity, but I have caught them napping in the same room and sometimes even in the same bed.

Abby is crazy, of course. She’s imperious and demanding and very, very loud.

Beneath her kitten adorableness lies the soul of a despot.

Abby.

But I love her. And having her in our lives makes me happy.

So when I say get a cat, what I mean is do something that makes you happy. Do something that fills a void. Do something that makes the world, at least for a little while, a gentler place.

Unless you’re allergic. In which case, get a fish? And be sure to post some funny fish videos.

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Why Your Life Needs Rituals

Blue and white porcelain teacup and saucerLast summer I had the pleasure of visiting Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC. The museum consists of the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress, businesswoman, and art collector extraordinaire. I spent the afternoon gazing at priceless porcelain and dazzling jewels and wandering gardens filled with too many varieties of flower to name under a perfect blue sky.

Yes, the collection was remarkable, the setting splendid, and the home itself opulent. And yet what I came away most impressed by the recognition that seizing beauty isn’t something to postpone.

At the end of my visit I lingered in the gift shop. After seeing Marjorie’s fabulous collection, I wanted something beautiful of my own. I dithered and fretted, balking at the price of a Russian porcelain teacup.

“Just get it,” my friend Ali said.

I took her at her word, and she was a good sport as I spent the next 15 minutes deliberating which design I needed to bring home.

I’m now the proud owner of a teacup and saucer that cost more than some of my college textbooks. But self-indulgence wasn’t the point, not really. It was about giving myself permission to go after beauty and allow it into my everyday life. It was about permission to pause, to create a ritual that allowed moments to be savored.

In a world where we move from activity to activity seemingly second by second, we may need rituals more than ever.

Rituals anchor us. They provide focus in days that are often unpredictable. They offer time that is our own, to shape as we choose.

Rituals calm us. They offer comfort. They offer a moment to look forward to. They create space that allows mind and body to be still.

And powerfully, and perhaps counter to what we may often imagine in the creative process, rituals provide stability. Stability promotes routine, routine promotes consistency, and consistency means things get done.

Do you have a favorite ritual that has helped to foster your creativity? Drop a line in the comments!

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Lipstick Before a Protest

candles in hands
Photo by Teresa Casale.

Dear Readers –

My political commentary generally relates to events two centuries ago, and in other countries. However, this week’s events have compelled me to break with precedent and write something about the 2016 presidential election.

My parents grew up in the 1960s. They were college students in Ohio during the Kent State shootings; they had classmates who went to Vietnam and never came home. I asked my mother once what she thought of the social protests, if she had ever joined the marches for civil rights, for women’s rights, for peace. She said no. She kept her head down and stayed out of it. She was afraid of being expelled from school. I remember being disappointed in her answer, ashamed of her fear.

Forty-six years later, I can’t sit this one out.

Let me start by saying that I wish our president-elect the best of success. Ready or not, he must lead. I hope that he is able to step up to that great responsibility and lead well. Though I have – often – disagreed with the policies of presidents of both parties, I have always respected the office.

His job will not be an easy one. There are many Americas. We are a fractured country – and have been fracturing in ways visible and not-so-visible for a long time. In 2010 I spent nearly a month driving through the America those on the coasts call the “fly-over states.” Even then I saw towns all but abandoned, empty store after empty store along empty streets. I come from an Appalachian state with pockets of deep and documented poverty, poverty that is mocked and misunderstood, poverty that the people living there can’t simply drive through.

For some, like the 1 in 6 American men who are not working, the economic recovery has been something that other people experienced, and not them. There is a colossal distrust of the American political establishment. In the summer of 2016, Congressional approval ratings dropped to unprecedented lows as constituents expressed disappointment not only with Congress overall but with their own representatives’ performance.

But these trends only show statistics, and this election was won on emotion. Anger, fear, hope, uncertainty. The voting block with more anger than hope spoke, and though they do not speak for all Americans, they decided for all of us who the next president will be.

Some of their anger, I understand. These are the people I come from, and like the author of Hillybilly Elegy J.D. Vance, I’ve moved away but I cannot forget. And yet not all poverty is treated as innocent poverty, and whites may disproportionately use it as an extenuating circumstance for other ills. As an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail noted, “You may have noticed that, the story goes, white people are on drugs because they have no jobs, but black people have no jobs because they are on drugs.”

Economics is a factor but it is not the only factor. Gender is a factor but it is not the only factor. Race is a factor but it is not the only factor. We desperately want an explanation for the unexplainable, but seizing on a simple one only places more blinders around truths that we struggle to acknowledge.

This election, perhaps more than any presidential election in recent memory, is at the intersection of the personal and the political. Now we are all reckoning with the aftermath. Some are feeling joyful and affirmed, others are mourning. We are coming to terms with this new America in our different ways, some with vigils and protests, some by writing, some by carrying signs, some by seeking solidarity. Some methods take us out of ourselves, and others drive us inward.

I hope that none drive us to hate. I confess that this America is a country that I struggle to recognize. I woke up on the morning of November 9 feeling as if I’d been hit with a very ugly family secret. I had believed that the American people had learned from our past mistakes, that we could do better than our institutions, which I will be among the first to admit are flawed.

The path to creating a more perfect union is not merely feeling, but acting. Voting is a small act, but it is a powerful one. Why else would those who had it put in decades of efforts and intimidation and brutality to keep it out of the hands of minorities and out of the hands of women? For many the opportunity to vote was won the hard way. Though it is your right to abstain, please don’t. Too many people sat out this election. We as a nation lost their voices.

Last night I was at the vigil-turned-march in downtown Washington, DC. I left the house with a warm coat and a fresh coat of lipstick. Someone handed me a safety pin and I pinned it onto my jacket. Though some commentators have derided this action, I disagree. Wearing a safety pin doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse. It reminds me that too many of my fellow citizens cannot feel safe in the country that they call their own, that they have as much of a right to as I do.

Wearing a safety pin reminds me that I should be prepared to keep the promise that the pin signifies. My world has many kinds of people in it, and some may need my help. Mr. Trump has made vicious comments about women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ community members, people of non-Christian faiths, veterans. Those comments have emboldened an ideology that I cannot and will not ever tolerate.  I cannot ever think that this is not my battle. I’m reminded of the Muslim photographer who made me laugh during three days of long photoshoots in DC, of the woman at my gym who works out in a headscarf. Of my sister and her wife. Of my husband, born overseas, and a naturalized citizen who gave over a decade of service to the United Stated Navy.

I think of the time I was on my way to meet a black friend after work and one of my car tires blew out. Someone stopped almost immediately to help – but if our places have been reversed, would someone have stopped for her? Would the helpfulness I encountered in the Midwest have extended to me had my face been a different color?

I don’t know and I cannot know the answer to these questions. I can only try to let the America that I grew up believing in not slip away, and I can only be humble, to not think that by trying to do the right thing that I am righteous.

And I can hope. I can hope America will indeed be great again, but not in the way that Mr. Trump imagines.

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Travelers Tales from Edinburgh

Pub in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland.

This week find me at World Travelers Today. This is a very exciting new travel site that not only features stories of wanderlust from around the world, but tips for travel safety and security plus behind-the-scenes features on local food and drink. I’m personally looking forward to the “Bartenders’ Best!”

I’m very pleased to have the honor of writing a guest post about my travels in Scotland – what a trip down memory lane! Find out why Edinburgh is a UNESCO City of Literature, and learn where to lunch like J.K. Rowling. 

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How to Shovel Snow

Yes, snowfall can be gorgeous. If you like to ski, snowboard, or snowshoe, fresh snow also means winter fun. But for those of us without a snowblower and with a driveway, the winter of 2013/2014 has been epic in terms of the amount of snow shoveling many of us have had to do. I am gearing up for a second round of shoveling this afternoon, and before I head out, am taking a brief break to write a post on

How to Shovel Snow

  1. Dress warmly! Layers are preferable, so you can take off a layer if you get to warm. Shoveling is exercise, and you may find yourself heating up. Be sure to wear a warm hat, gloves, and a face covering if temperatures are extremely cold. You want to protect your exposed skin from possible frostbite.
  2. Go slowly and take breaks. Shoveling is not a race. Work at a pace that feels comfortable for you. Make sure you stay properly hydrating by drinking water periodically. In the cold, you may not feel thirsty but your body is working hard and water is essential.
  3. Invest in a snow shovel. 
  4. Don’t overload your shovel! Wet snow is heavy, and can be unwieldy. Only scoop as much snow onto your shovel as you can comfortably throw or knock off.
  5. Use your legs to help you lift the shovel. Make sure you aren’t over-extending your lower back by leaning over too far, or trying to lift all of the weight with your arms. Again, breaks are important.  
  6. Chances are, it may be windy while you are shoveling. It is easiest if you shovel with the wind at your back. When you toss the snow off of your shovel, the wind will blow it away from you instead of back into your face.
  7. Make sure you warm up afterwards, and drink plenty of liquids.

Weather.com, Popular Mechanics, and Web MD have even more tips and advice. 

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How To: Grow Greens Indoors

Spring is coming! But until it gets here, perhaps you’d like to get a head start.

Growing salad greens such as arugula and some lettuces indoors is a lovely way to enjoy a taste of summer’s freshness year-round. Here’s how!

What you’ll need:

  • Seeds (arugula, spinach, or “loose leaf” lettuces are good choices)
  • Potting soil
  • Container(s)
  • A sunny window

Process:

Most greens grow fairly quickly and have shallow roots. That means you will be able to grow more than one crop of your greens of choice during the winter months. As soon as you harvest one crop, you can begin another. Or, you can even have plants growing at multiple stages in different containers to give you a steady supply of fresh greens!

1. Fill your containers with potting soil. Containers don’t need to be anything fancy — you can use anything from terra cotta pots from a garden supply store to a cardboard milk carton laid lengthwise with the top side cut away.
2. Plant your seeds in the containers. You will not need to bury them – simply sprinkling them on the surface or using a pencil or fork tines to make a very shallow “furrow” is fine.
3. Water the seeds very gently until the soil is moist.
4. Keep in a sunny location with a relatively constant temperature between 55 and 70 degrees. The room can be a bit chillier than that, but your seeds will likely take longer to sprout.
5. Water regularly. As your plants sprout, you may need to thin them periodically. Just use the microgreens on a salad or sandwich!
6. In a few weeks, enjoy your homegrown greens!

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How-To: An Easy, Make-Ahead Brunch

Does the idea of hosting brunch make you wish it were acceptable to drink something stronger than a mimosa at 11am? Never fear. Everyone needs a fail-safe, easy-peasy brunch recipe up their sleeve, and this is mine.

If you can slice bread and scramble an egg, you know everything you need to know to make this delicious and filling brunch recipe! Best of all, it is assembled the day ahead, so all you need to do it pop it in the oven the morning of your brunch.

Note: The original version of this recipe was created by Paula Deen. My variation is “lightened up” with less butter, sugar, and half-n-half, and made more flavorful with just a hint more spice. It is still a sweet and decadent brunch treat, but with fewer calories and less fat.

Baked French Toast with Pecan Topping

Ingredients:

1 loaf French bread
5 large eggs 
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 1/2 cups milk (1% or 2%) 
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Dash salt
Maple syrup (“real,” if possible)
For topping:
1/2 stick butter, softened 
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Method:
 
Slice French bread into slices approximately 1/2 inch thick. Spray a 9 by 13-inch baking dish with cooking spray and arrange the slices into two rows. You may need to overlap the slices. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, half-and-half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and beat with a rotary beater or whisk until well blended. Pour the egg mixture over the bread slices. You may need to turn some of the slices over and dunk them in the egg mixture a little to make sure that they are all covered evenly. Cover the dish with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. While the oven is preheating, prepare the Pecan Topping. To prepare the topping, mix the butter, brown sugar, pecans, corn syrup, and spices together in a medium bowl. The mixture will be gooey.

Spread Praline Topping evenly over the bread and bake for 40 minutes, until puffed and lightly golden. 
 
Serve immediately, accompanied by the maple syrup alongside. To round out your brunch, serve a simple fruit salad of strawberries, blueberries, and sliced bananas, coffee, and orange juice (champagne optional). Viola!
 
In the unlikely event you have leftovers, store them in the refrigerator. Portions can be reheated in the microwave at 80% power for 1-2 minutes. 

 

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How To: Build a Fire


With temperatures plunging to the single digits or into the sub zero realm across most of the U.S.,  now is a good time to think about staying warm. After all, we don’t want to end up like that guy in To Build a Fire.
So in honor of my friend Brigit, who asked for some “how to” posts on the blog, here is my inaugural life skills post.
If you were a Girl Scout or a Boy Scout, or just grew up in an outdoorsy family, chances are you may already know how to build a fire. But if not, read on. For simplicity’s sake, these instructions are for building an indoor fire in a fireplace or a wood stove.  I’ll tackle outside fire-making in a future post.
Step 1 – Ventilation
Many of us can recall lessons about hot air rising from science class. The flip side is that cold air tends to settle downwards. When you prepare to start a fire in your fireplace or stove, make sure you open the flue – this is what allows exhaust to go up the chimney, but you need to make sure the air inside is warm enough for the smoke to rise up through  it. There should be a handle that you will need to pull, and on a very cold day, allow the flue to stay open for a good 30 minutes to get a warm air current moving up the chimney. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that all the smoke will pour right back into your house once you light a fire!
Step 2 – Fuel 
A fire needs fuel in order to start and keep burning. There are three kinds of fuel you should have in place:
Tinder – used to start a fire. Crumpled newspapers and very small twigs work well. You can gather your own tinder, or purchase “starter logs” and other ready-to-use tinder. 
Kindling – “intermediate” fuel used to feed your fire.  Larger twigs (say an inch in diameter), or small pieces of a type of wood that is quick to light, such as pine, work very well.  Just like most cars won’t go from 0 to 60 instantly, fires won’t go from a single flame to burning full size logs. Kindling is used to aid the transition.
Logs – used to sustain an established fire.  Elm, hickory, and oak are solid choices, as is apple. Be sure that your wood has been properly “seasoned”, i.e. allowed to dry out for several months or up to a year. Freshly cut wood contains a high degree of moisture, and should not be used indoors.  Pine and other soft woods are acceptable as kindling, but are not ideal to use as your main fuel source.
Step 3 – Ignition
Once your flue is open and you have collected your fuel, you’re ready to build your fire.

  • Crumble several pieces of newspaper into loose balls. Pile the balls together into a loose pile, and arrange several small twigs on top. You can either criss-cross the twigs in alternating layers, making sure there is space between them (aka the “log cabin”), or arrange them into a pyramid shape over the newspaper (aka the “teepee”). No matter which method you use, make sure there is some space between and around the twigs, so that air can freely circulate.
  •  Light the newspaper. As it catches and the small twigs begin to burn, gradually add more twigs.  Note: Do not use lighter fluid in fireplaces or wood stoves
  •  As your fire becomes established, feed it some kindling. Be careful not to add too much fuel, which can smother a fire. Make sure your tinder and kindling catches and is burning steadily before adding more.
  • Once you have given the fire a few helpings of kindling, add a larger log or two. Depending on how quickly the wood burns, you will need to continue adding logs periodically to keep the fire going. If you have a set of fireplace tools, you can arrange the logs to give them more or less space to maximize the fire’s efficiency.  It is common for logs to break apart as they burn. 
  • When you are ready to extinguish your blaze, stop adding fuel and allow the fire to burn out.  You can separate and scatter the ashes inside the fireplace or stove to speed up the cooldown process. Allow the ashes to cool completely (which usually takes several hours) before removing them. Never leave a burning fire unattended.
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Let it Be

South shore of Lake Erie. December 28, 2013.

 December 31.  A new year is on the horizon as the holiday season begins to draw to a close.  And the world is busy.  There were gifts to exchange, family members to visit, flights to catch, miles to drive. There were cards to mail, cookies to bake, gifts to return, and pictures to take.

Instead of pausing to catch our breath, we plunge ahead. We make resolutions, and we resolve to do more.  We think of the things we should be doing, could be doing, would be doing, if we just had more time/money/energy/smarts.

Rarely, rarely, are we ever told to stop. Rarely, rarely, do we ever hear the word, “Enough.”

I am not against making resolutions or setting goals.  Goals help us accomplish tasks or take action.  I personally start each day with a to-do list (even on the weekends or on days when I’m not at work.)

Here is what mine looked like this morning:

1. mail mom’s calendar
2. mail check to dad
3. mail thank-you notes
4. change dr.’s appt
5. kickboxing – 12pm
6. send receipt to Chrissy
7. blog
8. make grocery list 

I skipped kickboxing and went to the pool instead, but everything else on that list, except #7,  has been accomplished.  I even walked the dog and fed the chickens, who at last have been bequeathing us intermittent eggs.

Yet goals alone do not provide purpose. They are only increments that show progress, not the destination itself.

So today, give yourself a break. Pause. Stop looking for something to do or feeling guilty because you aren’t doing something that you could. Dare to rest. Dare to breath. Dare to say that for today, you yourself are enough.

Happy New Year.

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