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.


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.

New Year Optimism: Happy 2018!

I love New Year’s Day. I wish that I could boil this feeling down into concentrated drops and place one under my tongue every morning, so that each day starts with this page-turning feeling full of possibility and hope and freshness. There’s no reason it shouldn’t. My intention for 2018 is to make that a practice.

2017 was a very difficult year for me, as it was for many people. Beyond the state of the nation and the daily onslaught of horrible news, I went through some personal crap that really hurt me. I became obsessed with those events and the feelings they triggered, my brain repeating and magnifying the pain on a non-stop loop that would literally wake me up at night. That negativity became a sort of involuntary, wordless mantra that crept into all aspects of my life.

The good news is that I’m old enough and self-aware enough to realize that this is not okay and furthermore, this is not ME. I have learned, after years of managing depression, to separate the part of my brain that beats me up from the part that is worth protecting, and I can intervene. (Worth noting: if you cannot see that separation or you can’t muster the will to intervene, that’s when you need professional help.) So I fought it, but it’s been a tough battle that I’ve been fighting for the better part of a year.

Apparently, as every podcast, self-help book and spiritual tradition in the world will tell you, the solution to this swamp of negativity is gratitude. Over the last month, I’ve received that message in a hundred different ways: notice the good. Be grateful. Celebrate what’s right, what’s working, what you have. Direct your focus to the positive things.

So, that’s the plan for 2018: to be more deliberate about noticing the good, being grateful and celebrating. This applies to everything: my job, my home, and especially myself. I want to keep a gratitude journal but I also want to pause several times a day to quickly inventory what’s good in the moment. I want to develop a new pattern in my brain.

In that spirit, I sat down this morning and made a list of good things that happened in the generally craptastic year of 2017.


The Women’s March: I walked in the Women’s March in Orange County last January and it was incredibly uplifting. Throughout all the ugly political news of the year, I could close my eyes and remember what 20,000 people marching in solidarity looks like, and know they are just tiny sliver of people in this world who will stand up for good.

Murphy’s Surgery:  In 2016 I found and fell in love with an injured stray dog who needed an expensive knee surgery. In February 2017 I was able to get him that surgery, thanks to donations from friends and a charitable grant. A couple weeks ago, we watched this little guy running on the beach in blissful abandon: four solid knees and one huge pit bull smile.

Our garden:  My daughter and I removed some ugly old shrubs in our tiny back yard and replaced them with a bed of interesting plants and a raised vegetable garden. Some of our plants were more successful than others, but the process was a pleasure, and we ate food that we grew ourselves, so we’ll call that a win.

Reconnecting with an old friend: This was a twofer. My dear friend from high school, Christina, is also a writing coach and all-around wise woman. We went for years without talking, then years when we’d talk once or twice. In 2017 we began regularly scheduled calls where we’d have a long talk, then do a writing prompt together. From those calls, I got writing practice, some desperately needed human connection and a reminder of who I am from someone who knows me better than almost anyone. (A threefer, I guess.)

New Job: I started a new job in 2017 that pays much better than my old one and offers better opportunity for professional growth. It also brought new friends, a new area of SoCal to explore and an hour-long commute, which seemed like a minus until I started thinking of it like this: each day, my commute affords me a couple hours of solitude in which to listen to audiobooks, music and podcasts…which brings me to…

Podcasts: I found some podcasts that I love. Thank Oprah for Super Soul Conversations which has featured some of my heroes including Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, and my new guy, Shawn Achor, whose book The Happiness Advantage is first on my reading list for 2018.

The Story Intensive: Christina recommended an online writing course called The Story Intensive that I completed in the fall. It was difficult and uncomfortable, and I learned a lot about my writing and myself. I also wound up with new writing friends around the world, a draft of a short story of which I’m fairly proud, and a renewed relationship with writing.

Morro Bay Girls: Out of the blue, I got an invitation to spend the weekend at a beach house in Morro Bay (on the Central California coast) with three cool women, none of whom I knew well (outside of Facebook) before that weekend. Just hanging around those girls in that sleepy, beautiful place was a balm to my heart. We’re having a replay this weekend and I can’t wait.

Last night, I was ranting about what a terrible year it was; how glad I was to see it go…and this morning, after making this list, I realized that there was a lot to be grateful for. I want to notice the good things in real time and not let the pain of life cancel out all the joy. So, more lists, I say! Lists every day! Notice the good things, document them, celebrate them. Train my brain to be constantly on the lookout for what’s positive.

Happy New Year—regardless of what kind of year it turns out to be—let’s be happy in 2018.

Seven Reasons to Love Moving

moving photo

I’m not moving again. Not yet, anyway.

The condo that I’m renting is being sold this week—which means another move may be on the horizon. Fortunately, I’m on a lease through the summer, but there is a great big pile of unknowns waiting for me when that lease expires.

I hate unknowns. Especially these:

  • Are the new owners slumlords or decent humans? Will they fix the broken stuff or let the place fall apart?
  • How high will they raise my rent? Will I be able to afford to stay?
  • Will they renew my lease?
  • If they don’t renew my lease, will I be able to find a new place that will accept my dogs?

As a chronic worrier, I find that sometimes, the most helpful way to deal with worrying is to work through the worst-case scenario. In this instance, the worst case is that I won’t be able to afford the new rent or they will not renew my lease. In either case, I will have to move. Again.

My fourth move in five years. Here come the voices in my head:

Cheerful Meg to Worrywart Meg: C’mon! It won’t be so bad! Moving is kind of cool!

Worrywart Meg: Moving SUCKS, you idiot.

But you know what? The secret truth is that Cheerful Meg, though obnoxious, is not entirely full of crap. I do kind of like moving. At least, there are a few things I like about it. And since I may not have a choice, I may as well focus on the good parts.

What good parts, you ask?

Allow me to itemize them for you:

  1. Purging. I love to get rid of shit. I feel righteous, self-controlled—rich, even—when I get rid of things. Before a move, I go on an epic purge of my belongings. Pare down to only the essential six or eight sets of cloth napkins for all my imaginary future dinner parties. Whittle away all but my truly indispensible twelve tubs of holiday decorations. Ruthlessly eliminate extraneous craft supplies until only the most critical shades of glitter remain. I am no hoarder! I am organized! A lean, mean domestic machine!
  2. Anticipation of decorating. Decorating is even better than purging. Decorating is one of my very favorite things, and moving to a new place means I get to decorate EVERY ROOM. Before I move, I measure each room in my new space and actually draw out a floor plan to scale, and then I cut out little paper furniture and rearrange everything a bazillion times. I cannot overemphasize the amount of satisfaction this gives me. It’s downright freakish. I pick paint colors (most of which are never used) and draw sketches and pour over the Craigslist used furniture section in a sort of feverish HGTV hallucination. It’s glorious.
  3. Moving day love. To all my friends and family who have helped me move so many times, I apologize for this part. I know everyone hates to help people move. But you know what? It’s pretty touching that they love me enough to do it. And they’re even pleasant about it and show up with food and useful gifts and make hilarious jokes all day so it becomes kind of fun. If I could spare them the opportunity to love me like that, I would…but if I can’t, well, I’m going to just enjoy the love. Right?
  4. Excuse to eat lots of pizza. As a thank you for the moving help, I buy pizza and beer. And I consume a ton of it. Since I’ve burned 348,964 calories lugging boxes and furniture around, I can eat that pizza with no guilt. Guilt-free gratitude pizza, anyone? Come help me move!
  5. Harnessing of Superpower. Have you ever noticed what an insane amount of work you accomplish on moving day, and the days just before and after? Apparently I have a secret reserve of energy that is only tapped in the event of a move, and it allows me to tirelessly plow through purging, packing, moving, cleaning, unpacking, and more cleaning at a speed that is quite staggering. Sometimes when I can’t muster the energy to wash the dishes or dust the bookcase, I try to channel that Moving Day Superpower. Never works. That power is only accessible on Moving Day. So you have to enjoy it while you can.
  6. Excuse to be messy. Thanks to a lifetime of conditioning by my mother, I have deep and abiding shame when someone comes over and my house is messy… unless I’m about to move or have just moved. In that case, free pass! Come on in! Just pull up a box to this grimy table piled with junk and have some of this leftover gratitude pizza!
  7. And of course, a fresh start. When there are boxes piled in every corner, but at last the beds are made and you can finally lay your aching body down in your new bedroom, you think about all you’ve accomplished and all those who helped and how much there is to do tomorrow. Laying in that new darkness, feeling the unfamiliar energy of the house settling around you, hearing those strange nighttime sounds that you haven’t gotten used to yet…you know the worst of it is over and you can finally turn the page and start a new chapter. And the last feeling you feel—just a quick glimmer before you fall into delicious, dead-tired sleep—is the rush of possibility.


This is a perfectly ordinary and wonderfully extraordinary Saturday.

This morning, I saw January sunlight slanting across a weathered wooden potting bench. I taught something. I learned something. I got soil under my fingernails.

I spoke with a woman I admire. She reassured me and challenged me at the same time, and I left feeling full of possibility.

And then home: the exuberance of a canine welcome. The soft fur behind their ears, the boundless excitement as I leashed them up for a walk in 75-degree sunshine and under huge shade trees where the cool, early-morning air still lingered.

I tidied up after last night’s festivities, enjoying my home, which really is perfect for me. It’s everything I need and filled with things I love. Things my kids made. Things I made. Books I’ve treasured, photos of loved ones, crazy bargains that still make me feel lucky and shrewd.

The clinking of empty wine bottles as I bagged them up brought my girlfriends to mind and I remembered two of them at the stove the night before. I thought about how good it is to have friends who know their way around your kitchen.

Last night my teenage daughter sat with us for hours, listening and talking, not even cringing while we moms talked as we always do on Girls’ Night: all the stories we can’t wait to tell each other, no detail too personal. One dear friend shared a part of her life we hadn’t heard before, and we cried with her, though her pain is over 20 years old. But mostly we laughed, because that’s what we do. I realized that my daughter is nearly grown enough to be part of my adult circle, and that I’m surprisingly comfortable to have her there.

Tonight there will be more laughter, and kisses from a man who, though still little more than a friend, has the most compelling dimple just left of his lips. And the glory of being forty-two is that I can enjoy the company of this man without worrying about where it will go, what it will mean, or what anyone else might think.

I’m recalling a bit of wisdom I heard this week, the crux of which was, “You do not lack. You don’t need fixing. Everything you need is already within you. You’re not some imperfect version of your future self; you’re a perfect version of yourself at this moment.”

My throat gets thick with gratitude when I realize how true that is.

Anything Would Do…

When I was a kid, there was a 7-11 on the corner near my house. The parking lot was walled by a cinder block fence, and there was a cinder block dumpster enclosure in one corner.  There weren’t any dumpsters in it, so I didn’t know that’s what it was. I just thought it was a special little outside room with no roof.

I wanted the dumpster enclosure—badly– for a clubhouse. I remember thinking it would be so cool– I could make a little roof and put a bed in there, and it was just big enough to put my stuff in. I would check it out every time we passed, and no one was ever using it. I figured if I asked nicely, maybe the owner of 7-11 would give me the dumpster enclosure and I could live in it. Oh, I would be so happy if I could just have that dumpster enclosure for my very own.

This is the enclosure I wanted. They've upgraded it since I was a kid; now it has a roof and even landscaping. Dreamy!

This is the enclosure I wanted. They’ve upgraded it since I was a kid; now it has a roof and even landscaping. Dreamy! Too bad they put a dumpster in it.

Of course, I grew up, and my ambitions outgrew the dumpster enclosure. First I wanted an apartment. Preferably an apartment like the one on Too Close for Comfort, with rainbows on the walls—but any apartment would do. By the time I got an apartment, it was 1994, so instead of rainbows I had country blue hand-me-down furniture. But I was fine with that—for a while.

Then I developed a burning desire to own something.  Anything would do, as long as it was mine. In 2001 I bought a grimy condominium wherein every surface was either dusty rose or mildew-colored. I can’t imagine why anyone other than a five-year-old girl would want so much pink. But that pink condo was mine, and once I cleaned that sucker up and painted over the pink with fashionable Tuscan colors, I loved it.  For a while.  Until I started to want a house.

Oh, how I wanted a house.  Any house would do, as long as it was mine.  My condo was cool, but it didn’t have a yard or a family room and it wasn’t big enough to host my family and suddenly, it just wouldn’t do. I had to have a house.

Well, I bought a house. Not just any house—I bought the house I grew up in. Just an ordinary ranch house in an ordinary suburb, with an extraordinary wealth of childhood memories in every room.  It had a swimming pool, a garden, and a garage to keep my hoard of craft supplies and half-done projects.  It had an antique piano in the living room. Not only was the dining room big enough to host my family, it was the very dining room in which we’d celebrated every major holiday since my parents bought it in 1979. It was more than mine; it was ours.  How I loved that house.


I wish there were no “until,” but there is. I loved that house until I had to sell it or lose it to foreclosure. An extended period of unemployment (2008-2011, just like everybody else) left me behind on the mortgage and nothing I did was enough to catch up.  It broke my heart to sell it. Still hurts to write about it.

I was in a crisis, earning half of what I’d earned before the recession, and I had to find a place I could afford—anything would do, with one tricky criteria: I wanted to keep my dogs. I had to find a place that would rent to me with two pit bulls. In case you don’t know, that is like trying to find a place that will rent to me and my herd of water buffalo. It’s really freaking difficult.  People questioned my priorities: you’re broke, and you have no place to go, and you’re going to keep those dogs? Yes, dammit, I already lost my house; I’m not losing my dogs, too.

Would you give up this dog? Me neither.

Would you give up this dog? Me neither. (Photo credit: Maddy Faulkner)

So I found one: a two-bedroom apartment that allowed pit bulls. Lucky me! Except I hated it. I tried to feel grateful because I wasn’t homeless, which is kind of a big deal. And I had my dogs, which was even something of a luxury. But I hated that damn apartment. I hated the crowded laundry room and the stupid ranchero music blasting all weekend and the idiot who parked his truck in my space and the damn yapping Chihuahuas across the way and did I mention there were COCKROACHES? (Cockroaches actually make me cry.) I hated that apartment EVERY DAY. I knew I was lucky to have it, but I couldn’t wait to leave.

Enter the ghetto cottage.  You can read about it here. It’s funky and older than dirt, and I was stoked to get it. It’s cheap and they don’t mind my dogs and it even comes with an exterminator.  Every day I am grateful for my own laundry, my own driveway, my yard, etc.

So what prompted this little walk down memory lane? Well, the GC finally got a paint job. I had been waiting for the paint job for six months.  I was so excited when they told me it was getting painted, it was like Christmas and my birthday all at once. Then I had a tiny meltdown.  WHAT ABOUT THE COLOR? WHAT IF I DON’T LIKE IT? WAIT, IS THAT PEACH? GOD ALMIGHTY, PEACH AND RED?!?

Have you ever gotten on your own nerves? I drove myself nuts obsessing about the color, when the proper response was to be grateful for the paint job. As often happens when I freak out, the reasonable part of my brain started to laugh at the crazy part. Criminy Meg, shut up. Out of the blue, I remembered that dumpster enclosure, and the kid who longed for four cinder block walls of her very own.

Oh yeah…perspective.

The ghetto cottage looks a million times better with the new paint, even though the color is a bit weird.  Now I feel even luckier to have it. As with everything in life, the key is to focus on the positive aspects while you’re working to improve the rest.  The truth is that I have everything I need, and then some.

You can't see the red behind the security door, but it's there. But look how pretty that white trim is! Woo!

You can’t see the red behind the security door, but it’s there. But look how pretty that white trim is! Woo!

This is the back door. It goes to the laundry room. I love the laundry room.

This is the back door. (It goes to the laundry room. I love the laundry room.)

The Marvelous Moods of Midlife Meg

Moods moods moods. Moody mornings, moody Monday, moody Mom.  Moody Mom on Monday Morning. I am like a depressive Berenstain Bears book.

Sometimes the moods are fun, zippy moods, where everything cracks me up and I’m friendly to strangers and downright goofy with my daughter.

Sometimes the mood is just a black cloud hovering over my head, Charlie Brown-style.

I used to take mood medication, but I quit. I took it on and off for about 15 years. No, I’m not embarrassed to share that with you.  Half the population is on anti-depressants, and if we’d all just admit it, there’d be a lot less secret shame in this world.  (Secret shame feeds the collective bad mood.)

Since I quit the mood medication—and by the way, I’m not advocating that anyone else quit; that is between you and your doctor—I have noticed that I have to re-learn self-control. I feel that bad mood coming and I feel the big giant anger and I want to kick and scream and shout ugly things, but I’m a grownup, and I’m well, so I CAN stop that behavior.

That doesn’t mean I always do. I lose it when I’m driving, when the dog pees on the carpet, when my boss loses it first (he started it!) and worse, I lose it in front of the kids. Sigh. Sorry, kids.

But, for the most part, I manage. I reel in the rage and the f-bombs and I don’t explode…but I’m left with the mood. I get to work with my crappy mood and I log into Facebook (so productive!) and see all the fun you had this weekend, with your cute, skinny friends and your cocktails…or you, on your vacation with your well-established husband, and I think CRIMINY, what’s wrong with me? Where’s MY cocktail? Where’s MY husband?  A few minutes down that path, the Charlie Brown cloud threatens to crack wide open and become a full-fledged, non-cartoon, tornado-type storm, with flash flooding and cows in the air and EVERYTHING crashing down.

I can stop this behavior, too.  Reach for the gratitude, Meg. Some days it’s a gratitude umbrella, some days it’s a gratitude life raft, but either way, it looks like this:

  • Two healthy children
  • Best family ever
  • Super awesome co-worker
  • Job with a paycheck
  • Car still starts
  • And so forth…

Sometimes I don’t actually feel grateful; I still feel grumpy. But the process of stopping and counting my blessings interrupts the mood spiral and gives me enough space to change my focus.

If that doesn’t work, there’s painting. I’ll tell you about that in another post.

What do you do to dispel a bad mood?  If anyone is actually reading this, let me know.