All aboard! I’m on the 19 for 2019 Train!

In the past, I have been a New Years Resolutions Maker. My resolutions tend to be some version of the same thing year after year: Lose weight. Save money. Write.

Since I have rarely been a a New Years Resolutions Keeper, this process is a little frustrating and disheartening. After decades of failed resolutions, I finally decided to give them up. I do see the value in the idea of a January reboot, though. In fact, today is the last day of my third-or-fourth annual January Whole30–woo! Resolutions or not, I still want to capture that rush of clean-slate motivation that comes with the new year.

Thanks to Gretchen Rubin and her Happier podcast, I’ve got a new way to take advantage of my January good intentions: the 19 for 2019 list.

Gretchen Rubin first talked about this exercise in 2018, based on a listener suggestion. Instead of goals for the year, you make a list of things to do that will (hopefully) make you happier. Rubin and her sister/co host, Elizabeth Craft, shared their 18 for 2018 lists and listeners all over the world chimed in with their own lists. Follow the hashtag #19for2019 on any social media platform and you’ll see some inspiring and fun ideas.

So, I’ve made my list. It was hard to narrow it down to 19 things, but I did. Then I made a pretty print of it and hung it on my bulletin board over my desk. It feels weird and personal to share it, but without further ado, here are my BIG NINETEEN:

19for2019

Why these particular things? Who knows, really. Plenty of things I want to do are not on this list, and some of the things on this list are things I would have done regardless. Some things, like #15, are easy-peasy and I can cross them off in a day for an instant feeling of accomplishment. Some things are challenging in a fun way (#10), some things are challenging in a not-so-fun way but they’ll be worth it for the payoff of completing them (#4 and #17.) Some sound suspiciously like my old resolutions (#7 and #8), but they’re on this super fun list now so I’m hoping that my stubborn brain won’t notice the trick. Some are things I’ve been meaning to do forever (#1, #9, and #12), but now they’re on the list, so this is the year!

Looking at it today, this list seems pretty manageable, like I may have set the bar a little low. But I know myself. If I look back in December and half of these are checked off, I’ll feel like at least I was intentional and accomplished some things that are important to me.

In fact, already this list has influenced my actions–I committed to an online writing class yesterday that will help me accomplish #12 and #13. I was fretting about the expense and struggling with insecurity about my writing ability, and I almost declined…but then I remembered my list. Gotta check those suckers off! Sign me up!

Since #8 requires me to blog monthly, I’ll update my progress here from time to time.

Have you done a 19 for 2019 list? What’s on it?

 

Autumn Healing

If it hurts to touch it,
Stop touching it.
Ignore it,
And let your inattention be
The space into which it dissipates.

But if it swells up hard and livid,
Gut it like a pumpkin.
Plunge your hands in flesh and seeds.
Reach into the hollow and scrape.
Light it up from the inside, ghoulish—
Put it on the porch for the neighbors to see:
Look at this grinning thing I made.

Now bare your teeth. Grin back.
This lurid reflection scares no one, save you.

Let the days march, coming and leaving.
Let the weight of an Indian summer
Dispel your longing and loss
Like motes in slanting sunlight.

Sit with it while the nights turn chill.
Watch it cave in, shrivel up and stink.
The day you no longer recognize it,
Throw the whole mess into the bin
And get on with your Thanksgiving.

July Reading Recap

playpleasureartfriendshipcuriositylove

I read more than usual in July, thanks to a week’s vacation. I am lucky to have a fantastic used bookstore in my town so I went in to stock up for my trip. I couldn’t find anything on my reading list, so I checked for yet-unread titles by my favorite authors. That’s how I found The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I cannot deny that I am a shameless fangirl for Elizabeth Gilbert. Say what you like about Eat Pray Love; it was one of the first audiobooks I ever listened to and I loved it! Her book about creativity, Big Magic, lives on my bedside table. So I had high hopes for Signature of All Things—maybe too high, alas. On the positive side, I found the main character—a large, lonely, plant-loving woman who is preoccupied with sex but never gets any—highly relatable. I mean, we’re practically twins. Also, the book is written in Gilbert’s warm, funny style, and features one of her favorite (and my favorite) themes: the intersection of earthly and divine. On the negative side, it might be a little too long. After an exciting start, it drags a bit in the middle; it might get tedious if you do not love Elizabeth Gilbert with your whole heart. But I do. So for me, it was a satisfying read anyway. I really enjoyed the historical context, too, and I think about it often.

While I was at the used book store, carrying my big, hardcover Signature of All Things, I thought, “This doesn’t seem like poolside reading. Maybe I should look for something light.” Lo and behold, I found a book called Something Light, so I had to buy it. It’s an old book, published in 1960, and the first few lines promised interesting wit and perspective. Apparently the author, Margery Sharp, was prolific and popular throughout the mid twentieth century. She wrote The Rescuers, which was made into a Disney animated film in 1977–coincidentally, the first film I remember seeing in a movie theater. Something Light was indeed light, full of clever prose and funny observations, along with some pretty outdated views, per its publication date. It’s a predictable story about a woman determined to catch a husband, so adjust your expectations accordingly.  Still, it was a fun, if silly, read.

The cast-off book shelf at my office yielded the best read of the month: Eventide by Ken Haruf. I only picked it up because it was free and the title rang a vague bell in my memory. A peek inside revealed that Haruf writes without using quotation marks. I confess that this technique stresses me out because I need the structure of punctuation to keep my ADHD brain focused, so I almost rejected this one. I’m so glad I didn’t. This slice-of-life novel about a rural Colorado town is full of characters so dear, you’ll want to hug the book to your chest and tuck it into bed at night. It’s the second in a series so if you’re interested, start with the first book, Plainsong. I’ll read it with you.

I choose audiobooks according to their commute value: I need something that will take my mind off the L.A. traffic, but not so riveting that I plow into the car in front of me. My July audiobook, Something in the Water, fit the bill perfectly. A reviewer described the main character of this thriller as “too stupid to live,” and I’m afraid that was a spot-on description. You know in a horror movie, when you shout at the screen, “DON’T GO OUTSIDE!!” and the idiot characters still go outside? This book was full of those moments. Also, you can see the big plot twist coming a mile away. I kinda liked it anyway. I kept listening, anxious to hear how the author would tie it all up. Also, I usually hate when authors read their own audiobooks (unless it’s a memoir, like Eat Pray Love.) I didn’t realize that this author, Catherine Steadman, is a well-known British actress.  Her outstanding performance imbued the book with greater presence and drama than I would have, had I read it with my own eyeballs. She made the main character sound a lot smarter than her “too stupid to live” choices.

I also tried an audiobook called The Weight of Ink, which tells the story of modern day historians exploring a discovery of 300-year-old letters written by members of a community of Jews in London around the time of Shakespeare. I thought the premise was fascinating, but I gave the audiobook three hours of my life and still couldn’t get into it. It may have been the terribly dull performance, which featured the worst attempt at an American accent I have ever heard. I really wanted to learn about 16th century Jews in London, but I finally gave up. That book was twenty-two hours long; I couldn’t sit through 19 more hours of it.

For a much shorter glimpse of cross-cultural human interaction, try this beautiful short story about a group of tenants in a dumpy apartment building and what happens when they are given notice to vacate. I struggle with fiction writing, but this well-crafted story makes me want to try harder.

Speaking of trying harder, this essay about sabotaging your writing really hit home for me. The author is the same age as me and her description of her life—prioritizing family, making a career in marketing, trying to convince yourself that the childhood dream of writing really doesn’t matter anymore—wow, could it be any closer to home? Read it if you’ve been procrastinating on your dream of writing for publication.

Finally, this thought-provoking essay about work and how society values it really resonated with me. It also gave me this concise list of things (beyond money and status) that make life worth living: play, pleasure, art, friendship, curiosity and love.

Hope you enjoy your last month of summer, and let me know what you’re reading!

PS: This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click through and buy one of these books on Amazon, I’ll get a teensy weensy commission which will not affect the price you pay for the book. 

Baby, You’ve Got Class!

  • Seventeen Magazine 1987

    Seventeen’s Back-to-School 1987 issue

The back-to-school issue of Seventeen magazine: was there anything dreamier in all of Teenagedom? I can still conjure the smell of it, that combination of glossy pages and perfume samples. Three times as thick as a regular issue, the back-to-school edition was unfailingly packed with girls in bright tartan plaids and chunky sweaters, posing in front of lockers or ivy-covered facades. I pored over it, page by glorious page, lying on the floor of my bedroom and listening to a cassette tape of Madonna. It was the Eighties.

In Southern California, back-to-school weather is crackling hot, which worked for me since I could only afford to shop the clearance rack, and any new clothes of mine would be summer remnants anyway. The one first-day-of-school outfit I can remember consisted of a black-and-white-striped, sleeveless, crew neck sweater; white, high-waisted suspender shorts either handed down or stolen from my sister; huge silver hoop earrings that were wide enough to see your reflection in, and a scrunchie. I was proud of that outfit. I planned it weeks before school started. I can’t remember the shoes, though. I may have blocked them from my memory; I could never get the shoes right. I am still shoe-challenged.

Today I saw a Target back-to-school ad and was hit with a wave of nostalgia so intense it was almost painful. My adolescent self would punch me in the face if she heard me say this, but I am jealous of the kids going back to school right now.

I miss that new-leaf feeling: the discovery of new teachers and new books, new gossip and new crushes. New music in choir—how I miss choir!—and a new round of auditions in drama. I miss the slant of the light between the buildings as the rushing current of students carried me from class to class.

For a moment, I thought I even missed the digital sound of the class bells, but no. What I miss is the schedule and the structure, decisions made for me and enforced by someone else, so I could simply do as I was told, then blame the powers that be for the stupidity of it all. If I was unsuccessful it was only because I was too good for such mundanity.

Of course many back-to-school memories are not pleasant. Every math textbook ever issued to me, without fail, had a penis drawn in it. WHY? Maybe we’d have more women in STEM careers if we weren’t haunted by crudely drawn penises whenever we opened a math book. Just saying.

No,  I haven’t forgotten how I hated school—I was miserable in junior high and high school. I remember the bitterness of it, the relentless self-loathing and shame, comparing myself to girls who were skinnier and prettier and more confident than me. Oh wait, I still do that—the difference is that then, those feelings were soothed by the conviction that someday, I would magically be better. After graduation, I would metamorphose into something spectacular, and that would show them!

I was destined for greatness. It was a vague sort of greatness, but I knew it would involve fame: an author, an actress, a singer. It had to be something very high-profile so that every boy who failed to notice my [utterly unexpressed] longing for him would wish he had.

You often hear people lamenting their lost innocence. I lament my lost ignorance. I want to un-know these things:

  • Success is built on mundanity. No one is above the grind.
  • Boys do not notice you longing for them unless you tell them that you are longing for them, which is an extremely uncomfortable conversation that rarely achieves the outcome you desire.
  • If you want to be a famous author, you must actually write things, sometimes years and years of things, before anyone will take notice.
  • You can spend all your time and money on being prettier and skinnier but that won’t make you more confident, and being confident takes a level of self-trust that money cannot buy.

Oh, to believe in Seventeen magazine again! I want a new outfit to make everyone notice me! I want a “Can’t-Miss Haircut” and “260 New Ideas for Fall”!  I want a Trapper Keeper full of fresh paper and pens, like magic feathers to keep me organized and productive. I want to know, with the conviction of my 15-year-old self, that I am going to do something great someday.

That is nostalgia: bitter with loss, sweet with perspective. I had so much and so little then. I have so much and so little now. Things change, but they stay the same. I still want to be noticed. I still want to do great things. I just need more somedays!

My 46-year-old self clings to this wisdom:  today is someday, simple things can be great things, and I am the only one who needs to notice.

 

 

 

June Recap: Books, Podcast, & Digital Community

Backyard reading with a drink and a dog

One of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken, of so many of my favorite things: a margarita, a good book, a summer evening in my backyard, and my dog, Murphy.

I’m in a fight with my writing. We aren’t really speaking at the moment. Since I have no output, I thought I’d share my intake instead. If you’re like me, you’re shocked that we’re already halfway through July, so you won’t mind that this recap of things I read and listened to in June is a little late.

I’d been waiting for Andrew Sean Greer’s Less to come out in paperback since I heard Ann Patchett recommend it in an interview she gave last fall. At her bookstore in Nashville, Patchett is often asked for recommendations for smart fiction that isn’t sad. That is key criteria for me, too. I don’t want depressing books! Since then, I’ve heard many others rave about Less…not to mention that it won the Pulitzer for fiction.

It was worth the wait.  Less is hilarious, but also tender and insightful and so very relatable. Greer dances on the sweet side of bittersweet in this novel about a writer past his prime who travels the world to run away from a heartbreak that he’d rather not acknowledge. I was charmed by the romance, but I was floored by the writing and absolutely skewered by Greer’s observations on getting older and feeling like an outsider. It didn’t hurt too much, though, because I laughed through the whole book.

One interesting note: I’m a huge fan of audiobooks but in this case, because I anticipated that I’d want to see the writing with my own eyeballs, I chose to read the book instead of listening to it. Then, my dear friend said the audio version was fantastic, so I bought that, too. I started to listen right after I began reading. It’s the only time I’ve ever tried to consume a book both ways at once. For me, the audiobook was a no-go. As I expected, I did want to linger over certain phrases and passages at my own pace. Also, I found the performance to be a bit too sardonic. While the book certainly pokes a great deal of fun at main character Arthur Less, it’s balanced with an earnestness that makes Arthur a rich character and not a joke. I found that the performance on the audiobook did not convey that balance, and it didn’t seem quite fair to Arthur.

Speaking of audiobooks, in June I also re-listened to one of my favorite audiobooks ever: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. If you haven’t read it, get a copy ASAP. It’s a fantastic book. If you have read it, listen to it too! The performance by Cathleen McCarron is perfect. I can’t believe it didn’t win an Audie. I could listen to that book a hundred times and never get tired of McCarron’s dry, Scottish delivery of this delightful main character and her funny, sad, suspenseful, heartwarming story.

I’m too cheap to buy more than one audiobook a month so I fill in the gaps with podcasts. My current favorite is Happier with Gretchen Ruben. Like her books, the podcast is about habits, human nature and how to be happier. She and her sister, Liz Craft, share tips and hacks to make life easier and happier, along with anecdotes from their own lives and input from their audience. The episodes are about 45 minutes, the perfect length for my commute! They’re light and fun, and they’re also helpful.

I need all the help I can get. One of the best investments I ever made was to join Jennifer Louden’s online community, The Writer’s Oasis.  It’s a website full of resources for writers, both on the craft and practice of writing. Each week, Louden records a session that is something between mediation, inspiration and writing practice. I don’t know how to describe it—she softens you up, delivers something soothing and uplifting, and asks you to focus your intentions for the week ahead. There’s something very, very good about those weekly recordings. They’re worth more than therapy to me. They help me get my head on straight. If you’re a creative sort—not necessarily a writer; lots of artists and other creatives participate, too—check out The Writer’s Oasis. It’s both inspiring and grounding.

I’d love to hear what you’re enjoying this summer—post a comment and let me know.

Underneath

The following bit of free writing, along with the little fox painting, was inspired by a Sarah Selecky writing prompt, which went something like this: Choose the book closest to you. Turn to page 22, find the last sentence of the second paragraph, and begin there. The nearest book to me: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. The sentence: “Do you think you are really a cow, chipmunk, fox or horse underneath?”

Underneath I am human, am I not?

Overthinking, worrying, self-consciousness: purely human.

Cow: only grass and sunshine, maybe the occasional bull if she’s lucky, or unlucky, as the case may be for cows.

Chipmunk: only nuts, storing for the winter, scampering up trees in flight from cats or dogs or cruel children.

Fox: only hunting, or when hunger is satisfied, hiding, tucked up in a hollow with her tail over her nose.

Horse: only grazing, running over meadow and creek bed and dry windy earth, stopping for cool streams and green grass, tender shoots between rocks, or the comfort of fellow horses huddled together against the weather.

All these urges are mine, too: to eat, to mate, to hide, to roam, to retreat, to huddle for warmth, but they are conflicted, muddied by other drives: to belong, to amass wealth, to be heard, to feel good enough or better than or worthy of.

No chipmunk questions her ability to hoard nuts or climb trees; she has only instinct, the next nut.

No fox frets or speculates; the field mouse is hers or it isn’t. There is hunger or there is rest.

Do horses worry? About inclusion or exclusion, or even about predators? Do they know of mountain lions in the surrounding hills? Or do they live in happy oblivion until they scent danger, hear the stamping hooves and high whinnies of their companions, until flanks tense and ears twitch and the herd launches in one motion, away from the threat of fangs and claws? Does the horse know what it flees, or does it only flee? Is there a premonition? Or is it all peace until the flight?

How many hours have I wasted in pre-flight? A hundred narrow escapes a day, aching muscles tensed to fight, pulse raised—in vain, exhausting anticipation of monsters who never appear and peculiar, specific, tiny deaths of my own imagining.

Little Fox- acrylic on canvas by Meg Faulkner 2018

Are you a cow, a chipmunk, a fox or a horse underneath?

Heat Through & Serve: A Corn Chowder Meditation

Onion and celery

It’s 6 am on a vacation day and I’m in the kitchen, chopping onions. The house is silent; even the dogs are still asleep. Like I do every time I chop an onion, I’m thinking about my sister, who taught me proper onion-chopping technique. I chopped at least twenty years’ worth of onions before I learned this efficient method, freeloaded from my sister’s pricey culinary education. Come to think of it, I’m chopping with a knife that she gave me, too.

I’m pretty excited to make this corn chowder. It’s my go-to recipe when I need to bring a meal to someone, and it’s perfect for a January dinner at a beach house with girlfriends, which is where I’ll be headed as soon as the chowder is made. And after I bake the cookies, of course. It’s a five hour drive up the coast. Who goes on a road trip without oatmeal raisin cookies? Not me.

The smell of onions and celery sautéing in bacon fat makes me think of football and I realize that if I were cooking them in butter, I’d be thinking of Thanksgiving…but the bacon grease could be any old winter weekend from my childhood: the rich, cheery smells of some long-simmering meal combined with muffled cheering from televised crowds. I take a minute to appreciate the source of these sensory memories: I had a mother who cooked. I had a father who provided. I had a comfortable, stable childhood that left me with happy memories of home.

I also have this recipe binder, which is like my personal memoir in food, each recipe recalling the person who gave it to me or the time I first made it.

recipes

It’s my mother’s corn chowder recipe that I’m using now. The card is written in my handwriting but I can tell that I copied it verbatim from hers, because I can hear her cautionary tone in the instructions: “Sauté til vegetables are soft but not brown…Boil til the potatoes are soft but not mushy.” I know this recipe by heart, but I always pull the card out anyway, to read those words and imagine her saying them.

Our house burned down in 1989, when I was a teenager. Everyone talks about the photos you lose in a fire, but no one ever talks about recipes. My mom is a recipe follower, and she lost some fantastic recipes in that fire, including her lasagna recipe and the only chicken and dumplings recipe that worked for her. I don’t believe she ever made chicken and dumplings again after the fire. The corn chowder recipe burned, too, but she was able to write it from memory, thank goodness.  It’s one of the most well-worn recipes in my binder.

While the potatoes simmer I thumb through the binder for Phoebe’s Fabulous Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, a recipe my sister copied for me from the Friends Cookbook.  I don’t have the original card in her handwriting anymore, but I can still picture it, with her notes: “Unsalted butter–I use salted then omit the salt” and “One Large Egg–You be the judge.”

I flip past my other sister’s recipe for Finnish Ribbon Cookies. Mine never turn out as pretty as hers, but I like to make them anyway because they are my brother’s favorite. Then there’s my favorite, Molasses Crackles, in the handwriting of an old friend who has since moved across the country. And here is the deadly Chocolate Peanut Butter Bars recipe from Mrs. Schroeder, a neighbor whose kids I babysat in the 80s when I was still a kid myself. I remember sitting on the rust-colored sofa in her safari-themed living room, painfully aware of the chocolate peanut butter bars in the fridge and struggling to keep myself from eating every last one of them before she got home. I really need to add those to the Christmas cookie roster.

Here’s my first peanut butter cookie recipe, which isn’t the greatest but I keep it because it has a little note from my ex-husband scrawled on it, in which he calls me the ridiculous pet name he used before we fell apart. Despite everything that’s happened since, or maybe because of everything that’s happened since, I still find it sweet to see that note. It doesn’t make me sad, though. I have a much better peanut butter cookie recipe now.

Here’s a recipe for Jamaican Chicken Stew that I once made for a dinner date whose name I can’t even recall. I don’t think I saw the guy again after that night, but I know the stew wasn’t the problem. That stew was top notch.

Here are the vegetable enchiladas with tomatillo salsa that I made for a friend who was going through a vegetarian phase at the time. I spent an entire day preparing that meal, but when I look at the recipe now I can’t imagine why it took me more than an hour.  Then I realize that was at least twenty years ago, when I was first learning to cook.

Here’s a cheesecake recipe from my Aunt Carol, written in my sister’s handwriting. Auntie Carol is like a smaller, sassier version of my mother.  She cooks for everyone, anyone, all the time. How long has it been since I’ve seen her? Eight years? Ten?

Here are the recipes from Melissa’s cookie exchange, the last time I saw her extraordinary mother before she died. Melissa’s mom made Chocolate Covered Cherry Cookies, now a staple on the Christmas cookie roster and my daughter’s all-time favorite cookie.

Now I’m whisking the roux into the boiling potatoes and wondering if I’ve taught my daughter how to make a roux yet. She’ll need to know that.

I can’t wait to share the chowder and the cookies with my friends. We’re each covering a meal this weekend and that’s one of the things I most look forward to. What a joy it is to cook for people you love, and share recipes, and taste the story of someone else’s life when they share their recipes with you.

Alone in my tiny kitchen, with a bubbling pot on the stove and a counter full of butter and sugar, I find my eyes spilling over with gratitude: for my mom, aunts, and sisters; my children and my friends; a family that loves to cook; a legacy of warmth and flavor and generosity. I’m surrounded by memories of loved ones at my table and of meals prepared for me by others. I’m realizing that kitchens are sacred, and that food is sacred indeed, and that this might be the first time in my life that I’ve truly understood the meaning of that word.