Hygge · Kitchen Culture · Life generally... · Recipes

FREE time

So.  Where I live, it snowed today.  A lot.  In fact, it is still snowing as I write this.  The roads were terrible, and half of our buses were forty-five minutes late.  My 20 minute commute was a cool 50.  We really shouldn’t have been in school today.  (After all, is this not why we have snow days–to date unused–BUILT INTO our schedule?)  But we did.  And I was pretty crabby about it.

But about half way through the day, when it became apparent that this was, in fact, the snow storm predicted and not some silly, little flurries to tease us in mid-March, my principal sent an email to the staff that said, effectively, “The roads are garbage.  As soon as the kids are gone, get out of here.”

I listened.  I packed up my stuff before I went out to bus duty.  I cancelled my voice lesson for tonight on my way out the door.  I drove myself home.  Fortunately, I drove home between gusting snow showers, and made it home in decent time.  I dug myself a spot to park in the building parking lot, parked and headed in.  Ready to snuggle in for the night.

It was only 4:11.

Being home by 4:11 is unheard of in my weekly grind.  I have other commitments that keep me away from home.  I stay late and get stuff done at work.  I go to the grocery store and run errands.  I go out to dinner with friends.  I don’t roll into my apartment for the night until after six.

And if I do, my time is allotted.  I have forty-five minutes between commitments and I have to get these six things done.  But tonight, I got home, and I had four and a half unaccounted hours at my disposal.  FOUR AND A HALF HOURS! That’s like half a day of work! And, because I’d come straight home, I still had energy to do more than throw myself on the sofa.

I had legitimate free time, and not “free time” in the not-at-work-sense, but FREE time–time that was not committed to any activity in my mind.  Outside of Saturday morning, this is an extremely rare occurrence in my life.  I tend to allocate time in my head, even my free time.  Things like, “I really need to clean the bathroom,” or “Oh, I can run to the bank then,” tend to crowd my existence.  But not tonight.  The roads weren’t bad, but there was no guarantee how long that would last.  I couldn’t go anywhere but home.  I had time. FREE time!

Well, what like any self-respecting Midwesterner presented with a snowstorm, naturally I had to make chili.  But unlike my usual, get-this-done-because-I’ve-only-got-an-hour weeknight speed cooking, tonight, I had FREE time.  I cranked up my Partridge Family Pandora station (it’s been my jam, lately), and started cooking.  With FREE time, cooking in my kitchen becomes a major production.   I use my stirring spoon as a microphone, and the big kitchen window is my audience.  (My neighbors always keep their blinds down.  But if they ever open them, they’re going to see a crazy girl singing with great conviction to their backyard.)  I also dance around like I can actually dance.

To be clear, I am a terrible dancer.  I am self-aware enough to know that, while I am good at a great many things, dancing is not among them…but this doesn’t stop me.  In my kitchen, I have no one who can tell me I can’t. (Willful self-delusion is a powerful thing…) Believe me, in my head, I am awesome.  I can bust a serious move.  (Reality is different, but there are no witnesses…and if a tree falls in a wood and no one hears it, does it really fall?)

As I write this, my candles are lighted, the chili is simmering on the stove and that warm, savory spiced aroma drifts past me.  I have a glass of red beside the computer.  King Harvest is rocking “Dancing in the Moonlight.”  The snow is blowing around outside while my radiators wheeze like tea kettles.  It’s a good moment to pause and savor.  This is what winter is all about.  This is what it is to have FREE time.

If you’d like to try out the rocking vegetarian chili (don’t worry–there’s no tofu here!), you can check it out here or check under the “Recipes” tab.  

Faith · Life generally... · Teaching

Bag Lady

My friend, “Abby,” is our school’s art teacher, and never, but never leaves work with any less then three bags–and I’m not talking about little “fits three pieces of paper bags.”  Oh no.  I’m talking about those giant, metal reinforced Thirty-One bags with monograms and stuff on the side.  Even her purse weighs about a ton because it’s made out of seat belts.

But Abby is not alone.  My mother, also a teacher, has a bag with those suitcase wheels because it’s so big, and half the time, I think my dad has to get it out of the trunk for her because it’s too heavy.  I have secret theory that one of our sixth grade teachers converts each of her children’s old diaper bags into an additional “for work” bag–needless to say, I think she’s got four kids.  My male colleagues (not enamored of the Thirty-One fad of their female counterparts) still walk out of work with a bulging messenger bag or backpack.  Not even I, myself, am immune.  In my defense, I only have one teacher bag…and that bag of music for my voice lessons…and the bag with all the scores for choir rehearsal…and the reusable grocery store bags in my trunk…Okay, okay! So I have a problem!

Conclusion?  Teachers are bag junkies.

I don’t know why, really, since the common thread I glean from most teachers is that we never do any of what we bring home in those bags.  We choose to do other things, feel mildly, naggingly guilty about it, but we don’t actually do it.  You think we’d get wise–leave it at school for when we head back into work where we will actually do this stuff.  But no.  We keep lugging the same seventy-five pounds of student work and professional textbooks and school laptops back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.  Maybe it’s just that we’re eternal optimists, who truly believe that this time, this time, we’ll decide we’d rather dive into those forty essays on Of Mice and Men than go out to coffee with our girlfriends.  Or go to the grocery store.  Or sit in a semi-catatonic state on the sofa and binge watch Parks and Rec for the fifteenth time.  Seriously.  What is wrong with us?

Mostly, I just think we’re nuts.

I’ve been reading a lot about minimalism and the minimalist movement lately.  And while I think some of it is kind of extreme (skip having a bed frame and just have mattress on the floor…don’t have anything hanging on your walls anywhere…) there are some things I really think resonate.  The theory behind minimalism is that the more stuff you have in your life (the more stuff on your counters, in your closet, in your head, in your heart) the more stressed and the less happy you actually are.

There’s a really valid point here, I think.  So many people I know live in these crowded worlds.  Dresser drawers crammed with clothes they can’t find and don’t like, rooms cluttered with the dross of a “them” that vanished years ago,  minds crowded with regrets about pasts they can’t change and worries about futures they can’t control.  I find myself doing it, too.  I take home work I “should do” sometimes.  I let myself get talked into doing things that absorb the few precious hours of free time I had earmarked for “me” in the week.  I pray that I will be less stressed out about X-Y-Z, and be able to just allow God to do His thing and be in charge of it.  But then, rather than trusting the God I purport to believe implicitly, I find myself lugging all my little worries around with me–just like my bags.

It’s really exhausting being a bag lady–the physical or the emotional kind.  So lately I have been trying to not be one.  Throwing out that stack of old papers on my desk.  Actually folding the blanket I’ve just used (even though I know I will use it again tomorrow.)  Sticking to my guns and not letting myself stress out about things I can’t control, and I know that God’s in charge of, anyway.  Not feeling guilty for saying no to things I am too busy (or don’t want) to do.  Looking at the things in my teacher bag and think, “Am I actually going to do any of this?” And when the answer is, “No,” just leaving it at school.  Because it will keep.  The sun will still rise.

So take the challenge.  Stop freaking out about the stuff that you have no control over for just the time it takes you to drink your morning coffee.  Clear out one dresser drawer of all the clothes you keep “just in case” you need them, but secretly hate.  Just for one night, leave the teacher bags at school.

Try it out.  You might just like not being a bag lady.

Life generally...

Old Fashioned Birthday Cards

img_1127I have a wall calendar hanging in my kitchen.  It’s hanging right over my coffee maker, so
I’m guaranteed to look at it at least once a week.  This is an important calendar to my life, because the only dates marked on it are birthdays.

And once a month, I make the pilgrimage and buy birthday cards for all the birthdays on my calendar.  I bring them home, write a little birthday note, address the envelope, put on a REAL stamp and put it in the REAL mail.

There’s nothing really special about them.  They’re not expensive or particularly special, but they’re real, paper-and-ink cards.  And in our social media-saturated world, in which we are absolved of any responsibility for actually remembering the birthdays of anyone remotely close to us, and a flippant “Happy Birthday!” on a digital wall lets us feel we’ve “remembered” people, there is something nice about a good ol’ fashioned birthday card.

In my view, putting it in the mail is also important, even for the people who I see at work on a daily basis.  I know there are some of my fellow Frugal Peeps out there who will say, “But you could save 49¢ and just hand it to them!”  This is true.  But there is a certain amount of forward planning and intentionality involved in the traditional mail.  What I hope people think when they get my birthday cards is that there is someone who cares about them–who went out and bought the card, who looked up their address, and put it in the mail so that it could be there by their birthday.  I don’t have money to buy nice gifts for all the people who are important to me, but I am hopeful that thoughtfulness can make up for a lack of finances.

It’s old-fashioned, but that’s okay, I reckon.  Sometimes the old ways are good ways.

Life generally... · Writing

Restart Button

As any person who has ever gotten into shape, then gotten out of shape, then back into shape again will tell you, getting into shape is hard.  Getting back into shape is a million times worse.  My theory is that when you first start, everything is painful and hard and awful, but you think, “It’s okay.  This too shall pass. I can go farther than yesterday.” (Even if going farther is only going an extra five feet.  It still counts.)  Getting back into shape, on the other hand, you’re shuffling along, wheezing with every muscle in your body screaming at you, and all you can think (well, all I can think, anyway,) is, “This used to be so easy!”  From my perspective, the temptation to give up is much higher with the Get-Back-Into-Shape process.

And I should know.  I am flying to Alabama to run a half marathon with a friend who lives down there.  I have two sets of running shoes that have been staring at me accusingly for the past three months, because I have laced them up and run…hm…once?  It’s bad.  I know I should run.  I know I need to.  I know that I may just die on the side of the road in Tennessee if I don’t.  But…I also know what’s coming my way.  I know how awful day three is.  I know how gross that “one hill” is (every route everywhere has that “one hill”) when you’re not in shape.  And so I keep putting it off.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize (with growing trepidation verging on open panic) is that I need to re-start a lot of things.  I need to restart to eating actual dinner–I’ve been subsisting very well on a diet of popcorn and tortillas.  (Last week, I impulse-bought a bag of cheese curls, which I proceeded to eat for dinner three times…until I ran out of cheese curls.  How appalling is that?)  I need to restart a regular cleaning schedule, rather than my current “I’ll clean it when a.) I have company coming over; b.) it looks dirty; or c.) I can no longer remember the last time I cleaned it” method.

And then there’s my writing.

Right now, I have three different friends who are varying levels of mad at me because I let them read manuscripts for the books I’m writing.  Books that don’t yet have a single finished manuscript.  Books whose status and length has not changed significantly for anywhere from eight months to four years, depending.  Like I said, I have some people who are mad at me.

And like the running and the cleaning and the cooking, I know that I should get back to it.  I know that I need to.  Occasionally, I’ll even start turning around ideas in my head.  I’ll talk a dialogue out loud on my commute home from work.  Rarely, I even open the darn manuscript and stare at it a while.  I don’t know what my deal is.  Writing a rough draft shouldn’t be this hard.  You just write it, even if it’s crap.  It’s in the editing that writing turns into a novel, after all.

But increasingly in the past few weeks, I’ve been feeling the internal pressure to get back behind the keys–to put metaphorical pen to paper, as it were. I need to tell stories and be creative in a vein that is not my career (which, for me, is music.)  In the same way I need to just lace up those running shoes and force myself out of the house, I need to sit behind and keyboard and force myself to write.  Write anything.  Write it even if I hate it.  Even if it dead ends.  Even if I just toss it all in six months anyway.  Write to write.

And for me to do that, I have to get out of my house, out of my city.  Away from all the things I use to distract me–laundry, kitchen, friends, family, work–all the things that occupy all of the time.  I need to get away, to be still, and to find my voice again.

Spring break is coming up in a few weeks.  I have the time.  Maybe I should go…

Well, fast forward twenty minutes.  I walked away from this post to book a cabin in a cute, touristy area a few hours from my house.  I’m going to go.  I’m going to lock myself in a snug little house with only comfy, un-cool clothes, my computer, and all the coffee.  I’m going to sit at the keyboard and just start writing.  I’m going to remember my voice.  I’m going to remember my love.  I’m going to hit the re-start button.  And while I’m at it…

…I’ll probably take my running shoes.

Life generally... · Misadventures

The Best Dog

Getting a Golden Retriever was a lifelong dream of my father’s ever since he’d met and fallen in love with one as a child.  My mother was considerably more wary, on account of the only other dog in our family history, Cinder, being kind of a disaster. Cinder made a career of escaping from our backyard at every opportunity, which, given that our yard was the hub of neighborhood activity for all six of us kids and our myriad friends, happened frequently.  Basically, my father viewed a dog the way my mother viewed another baby. (My mom thinks of babies and sees first steps and dandelion bouquets and kindergarten plays and homemade cards.  My dad, on the other hand, sees designer jeans and out-of-state college tuition and expensive weddings with ice sculptures. )

Anyway, so the summer I went off to college, my mother finally relented and agreed to let my dad get this dog, and that is how Gracie Ellen came into our family.  We brought her home from the breeder a few weeks before I left for school, an adorable little golden fluff-ball who was ready to love all of us to bits.  She was sweet and gentle from the start, a trait she has never lost.

Being a retriever, she was constantly on the lookout for things to bring you to show she cared.  As a puppy, she would pull the socks out of people’s shoes and bring them over, tail waggling so fast her whole back half looked like it might come off.  Of course, it was adorable, and we praised her for it.  This proved to be a mistake, because she never gave up this habit, and, if you came into the room, she would frantically search around for socks to bring you.  Failing this, she would retrieve anything she could find in the laundry room–dish towels, t-shirts, double bed fitted sheets–and there were more than a few times she joyously trotted over to a guest in the house touting somebody’s underwear.

From her earliest, she was a dog with a radar for small children, old people, and anyone who might be feeling blue.  She’d be perfectly happy roughhousing with my brothers, but just has content to sit next to a stroller to have her ears tugged on by a toddler or be gently patted by a little white-haired lady in a wheelchair.

Gracie has had some adventures–like the time that she ate half a box of raisins and we all thought she was going to die (dogs, by the way, are deathly allergic to grapes and raisins).  The time we threw a stick in Lake Michigan and she didn’t see it behind her, and was well on her way east to the Michigan shore before somebody threw a rock in the water to get her to turn around.  The time she got stuck in gridlock with my dad in Chicago and had a marvelous time hanging her head out the window so other drivers could pet her.  The thirty-six hours in her whole life that she wasn’t with at least one member of our family, and the neighbors watching her were convinced she was dying because she was so violently ill. All the family walks we took and didn’t stay close together, and she would do her best to herd the family attached to the leash toward the stragglers.  All the times people had bad days and sad days and came home, where she’d sit next to them and let them cry on her fur. Her stories are many and live in the family lore and are told time and time again.

Gracie is old now–almost fifteen.  She has arthritis that makes it hard for her to walk.  She’s stone deaf.  Her stomach can’t handle dog food any more, so twice a day, she gets scrambled eggs and chicken and rice with cheese (and salt.  Once my dad forgot that, and my parents both swear she took one bite, stepped back and refused to touch it until he put the salt on it.)  She’s old  and slowing down.

I live near my parents now, and go over there pretty regularly.  I always stop and pet Gracie, who, even now, puts her head against your arm, and struggles up so she can come and sit by you and guard you from intruders (though what an arthritic, deaf dog with the sleep of the dead can do, I’m not quite sure.  But I’m sure she’ll do what she can.)  I’ll sit by her sometimes now, and pet her old, golden coat, brush her, and whisper in the ears that can’t hear any more that she’s the best dog in the whole world, and that I love her.  I do it because I know she won’t be around for much longer. Eventually, the day will come when I will go over to my parents’ house and she won’t be sleeping on the kitchen linoleum.  The old, white face won’t look up when I walk into the house, and the floppy, golden ears won’t perk up whenever I make a move toward the pantry.

I do it because she is my dog.  She saw me through the ups and downs of my college years.  She was a faithful friend when I graduated from college and didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.  She sat next to me five years later when I was longing for my China home, her head on my lap, big, brown eyes that said, “I’m sorry that being back in America is hard for you.”  Gracie has always been around when life got hard for me, so now, I figure I should return the favor.  I know she’s just a dog–she didn’t understand all the things that I went through, but in her own, canine way, she did her best to help.  I do it because she is the best dog.  She’s my dog.  And God let her be part of my life because He cares–even about the little things, like Golden Retrievers.

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