The kind of JOY that needs more GRATITUDE

Here we are. At the end of summer once again. The boys left this morning in the barely-there light with fresh planners and lunches made by a mom who isn’t tired of packing lunches yet…in the air was that familiar energy that is part excitement, part nervousness and a smidge of resolve necessary because no one really wanted to be awake yet.

Just one short week ago we were closing out the vacation with a last breath of carefreeness – our traditional end-of-summer camp out. It was still fairly hot, of course…no rain meant crunchy grass…and the breeze didn’t come up until almost midnight.

Blacky Lawless

But the deer still hung out with us – curious about the tent and watchful of the dog.

End of summer camp out

We swam and built a fire…roasted hot dogs and s’mores…watched for shooting stars and told stories until we fell asleep, laughing, with the dog piled among us. That night – the whole summer, really – was full of moments, whole days even, that my husband and I refer to as “foreboding joy.” You know the ones: if you were watching a movie, it’s the picture-perfect moment when you think, “Oh, wait, the aliens must be about to land and turn everyone to ash” or “Yep, someone is definitely about to die.” In real life, it’s those moments when your heart just might burst because of so many wonderful, too-good-to-be-true things. It’s joy, but there’s an edge to it.

Sarge

Our summer was full of bliss and blessings and dear friends and family and fantastic trips…plenty to be content and ecstatic about. But, for me, the summer also had too many dark days and tears and anxiety and insecurity and flat-out melancholy. It seemed quite confusing. How is that so? How do those opposing forces live so snugly side-by-side?

Because: Joy is such a scary thing.

One of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, tells us over and over in her work that joy is terrifying because we believe if we lean in to it too much, it will be that much more painful when it goes away.

Carmella

Dress-rehearsing tragedy, she says, as a way to protect ourselves. But then we don’t fully experience the good parts either.

This morning, in a quiet house, the breakfast dishes and mess put away, the dog sulking at the front window – there is no tent in the yard, the pool toys are put away and the routines are back in place – I was thinking about the summer and my perplexing moods and what else to do about them. I was feeling relieved about how September always seems like another January to me: a fresh start, a clean slate, new teachers and a year of possibility outstretched in front of us… I was working to convince myself that certainly this shift of routine would finally help escort the melancholy along and out of my life for now.  And then I thought of Brené because of her new book and how often my husband and I talked about foreboding joy in the past few months – and it occurred to me that more routine was probably not all that I needed, but perhaps also more gratitude – more active, mindful gratitude.

in the pool

It’s possible that my summer doldrums were partly my way of balancing out so much goodness, so much love and so much happiness…not intentionally, of course, but our physiology has its sneaky ways, you know. Sounds a little crazy, maybe… but as long as I’m also flirting with depression, then when the joy gets annihilated, it’s not quite such a shock, right? A way to feel just a little less vulnerable when there is so much to lose. As I sat watching some birds playing in the bird bath outside the front window, I thought, “Well, here it is, yet another layer of the grief journey. With every loss and heartache and tragedy that is experienced, the more challenging it is to hold on to the idea that joy can exist and truly sustain…because we know too much. We know how quickly it can vanish.”

Fire pit

Gratitude is such hard work sometimes. Not the nicey-words-kind-of-gratitude. Not the make-a-list-of-things-kind-of-gratitude. No, I mean the take-a-deep-breath-and-don’t-let-your-brain-go-to-the-scary-place-kind-of gratitude. The stay-right-in-this-very-moment-and-lean-in-as-far-as-you-can kind of gratitude. I mean the kind of gratitude that is terrifying if you let yourself think about it for too long, but you go ahead and breathe it in anyway and soak it up and dunk yourself in the joy over and over again. That kind of gratitude takes practice. Probably lots of it. I’m pretty sure I need to work on exactly what that looks like.

Sergeant

So, I am going to embrace the renewed routine of the school year and I hope it helps. And Dr. Brown’s new book – I’ll be reading that as soon as I can get my hands on it.

But I’m also going to focus more energy on a deeper quality of gratitude; a more active, mindful and sustainable kind.

Basically, I am going to work harder to be more like my dog – because, clearly, he has already figured this out.

🙂

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My love-hate relationship with Summer

Seems like I was just posting about our summer bucket list and bam! school starts tomorrow. Lucky for me, I did not blink…so I did not miss it in spite of the break-neck speed.

Summer is always such a paradox for me. (As are a lot of things…which is why I’m such a Whitman fan, I think, because his quote comes up in my head a lot and gets truer and truer every year: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”)

I LOVE the Summer. I love the freedom and the sleeping in and not making lunches and not seeing a backpack or a stack of papers for months. I love being in and out of the pool all day and watching sun-kissed boys lounge in their nearly-dry bathing suits while they insist that popcorn is acceptable for lunch – and I agree.

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I love that mealtimes sort of go away and we gather and eat when and if we feel like it. I love deciding, at the crack of 10am, that today we’ll go binge on video games and bad pizza and then we just go do that…because there is no schedule to consult or adjust.

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I love that my parents take the boys every Friday and do the coolest stuff: bat caves and zip lining and ropes courses and paddle boarding and movies and ice skating and roller skating and bouncy house fun.

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I love the lake trips and day drives and bowling/swimming playdates and mid-week sleepovers and pottery class and ALL.OF.IT.

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Every day with the boys I was aware how quickly this time will pass and that someday summers won’t look anything like this…and I’ll miss them terribly, I know. I felt so grateful to be able to be home with them so much and such a big part of their lazy Summer days.

And honestly, just reading that last paragraph I can feel the other side of the paradox fake barfing just like my boys do over such sappy sentiments. Because, also, I DO NOT love the Summer. I crave a routine and without one I can get listless and unproductive. The empty calendar pages loom for weeks and I feel the pressure to fill them, make them useful, don’t just sit around for 2.5 months, go, do, learn, inspire, engage, entertain…and then I feel exhausted and overwhelmed. DSC_0136I really, really miss school-night bedtime…when the boys are staying up late every day feels endless and like I don’t get any of my necessary “me” time. Going to work feels like a chore because I have to leave all the fun and schedule all the nannies and I get lazy about my own career – which is something I adore. And then I feel bad about not being a good grown-up. DSC_0021They watch too much TV and play too many videogames and at some point I just say “OK” because we’ve already done everything on the list for that day…so, why not? And the “nutrition” that comes with the summer – ha, who am I kidding? So then mom-guilt sets in. Also, I adore back-to-school shopping – really – and that only happens when Summer ends. And then there’s the fighting… don’t even get me started on the bickering and poking and picking and taunting and antagonizing that has been perfected this Summer. IMG_0963They worked at it as if their very lives depended on it, like an artist works his craft, like an athlete trains for his biggest feat… they honed their rivalry skills and nearly drove me nutty in the process. I planned days based on the sole purpose of separating them. I planned activities in which they wouldn’t see each other for hours. I sent them to their rooms and forbid them to look at one another. So there are just as many reasons that I do NOT love the Summer.

And because of all of that, I am full with contradictory melancholy and glee that today is the last day of the Summer.

DSC_0005We had our ritual end-of-summer camp night this weekend and I was a mess of emotions over it. First, we moved into a new neighborhood at the start of this Summer, so the new house is still showing us what treasures it holds…like being able to camp out, under dreamy stars amid a glorious, somehow-cool breeze at the end of August in Texas surrounded by deer without a single mosquito in sight…seriously, who knew that was even possible? We had a late, late swim and then dried off by the campfire and fell straight into the tent where Whitman laughed us to sleep with his “guess which animal I’m thinking of” game. (Which I would love to tell you about, but I don’t really understand it. He loves it and it makes us all crack up – that will have to do.) How could I want for anything like that to ever end? I felt sad and sentimental and incredibly blessed. DSC_0043

And in the morning, I was delighted at the thought, “OK, that’s the end of that…back to the real world we go. Thank goodness for regular bedtimes which will soon be back!” And I made breakfast and organized something and put things on a calendar and filled out first-day-of-school paperwork… so relieved to think this Summer craziness would all be over soon. Whew.

Then the boys began begging me to get in the pool for a morning swim… “Dad’s here, come on, it’s so nice and cool…come on mom, why won’t you??!! Huh? Why not? Come have fun with us!” And so, just to shut them up, and maybe also to prove that on rare occasions I can actually be as much fun as their father, I walked straight across the deck, still in pajamas mind you, and jumped right in. Their squeals of delight made me instantly miss the Summer again. DSC_0011

So, dear Summer, so long for now… I have loved and hated every minute of you. I will mourn your end at the crack of dawn while I’m making breakfast, buttoning buttons, packing fresh new backpacks, combing hair and supervising teeth brushing. I will mourn you when the boys sigh at my refusal to let them swim at 8:00pm because there’s still too much to do and it’s bedtime. I will mourn you when it’s my day off and I can’t steal away my children for an unscheduled day doing who-knows-what.

I will also delight in your passing at 8:17am when I’m alone in a silent house with no mouths to feed and no bickering to referee.  I’ll probably also do that again around noon, just because I can. Try not to take it personally.

Thank you, Summer – you’ve been the very best!

A new year… a new tradition

I’m sure you have all heard about the gratitude jar phenomenon that has been going around for several years now.

If you haven’t, just go here on Pinterest and see roughly 483, 720 examples. (Basically, you jot down as many grateful moments as you care to, store them in a large container all year, and then, on New Year’s Eve, you read through them all and bask in the memories of the previous year’s highlights.)

photo from mommaonthemove.ca
I did not take a picture of my plain mason jar…this much cuter jar is from mommaonthemove.ca

I stumbled across the idea at the end of last year and have been waiting anxiously since then to complete our first year. I’m not very patient when it comes to fun, new traditions. So finally, 2013 has come to an end (almost) and we had our first “jar party” tonight. My boys were forced to joined us on the floor where we dumped out many, many piles of tiny papers and began reading through them…there also might have been chocolate fudge cake. And champagne.  (Yes, I know, it was one night early… see note above about my patience.)

Suffice it to say, I was in misty-eyed-mom-mode for most of the ordeal…the good kind. What a treat. Here are some favorites:

My four-year-old listed every family member (including extended) on one piece of paper and then at the bottom it said, “they are all the best.” Both boys had many submissions about family movie nights and bike rides, pets and special times with mom, dad, and grandparents…and not a single mention of toys, electronics or anything material at all. Oh wait, there was one note about a new trampoline. OK, so one mention of a toy. Such simplicity in the things the boys wrote down – it felt humbling.

“I love my school.”

“When mommy read to me today.”

“Our house is always full of good food.”

“The earth and stars and a big sky and angels.”

“My dad lets me build stuff with him.”

“Our super soft kitty.”

I had three different entries about how blessed I feel to be in charge of my own schedule and have the luxury of flexibility…and several more in appreciation that long-time, old stressors from the past no longer exist. It was a clear way to see some patterns about what really feels important.

All in all it was a big success in my book. It is such an easy way to incorporate the “discipline” of gratitude into our everyday lives and, hopefully, instill healthy mental habits in the boys. (There’s lots of good reasons for this, in case you haven’t heard.)

Some adjustments I’m making for 2014:

A new, prettier container – with more room!

Pre-cut papers so they are always handy

Putting dates on the entries (some of the things we wrote about were hard to place exactly without a date for reference)

Making entries even more often, so I can be mistier-eyed next year. 😉

It’s never too late to start… Happy New Year!!

UPDATE:

Here’s the new jar for 2014…with several  little papers in there, already. Is it too early to be excited for next New Year’s Eve?

Gratitude Jar

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

How long has it been since you’ve read this book?

Well it had been some time for me, until recently.  (And for those of you on Pinterest, you probably already know why.) But we’ll get to that in a minute.

I love this book.

Maybe as much as my all-time favorite Dr. Seuss book, The Lorax.

It’s positive and encouraging and has that you-can-do-anything-you-set-your-mind-to message….but it’s also realistic and talks about a wide variety of challenges and stumbling blocks along the way…

The Library of Congress summary for this book is: Advice in rhyme for proceeding in life; weathering fear, loneliness, and confusion; and being in charge of your own actions.

Sounds a little like parenting, no? Though it’s my husband who is usually in charge of the rhyming department.

So why am I talking about a decades-old children’s book?

Because this year I sent a copy of this book to my sons’ schools and asked their teachers to please write something in them. I planned to do a cute little instruction tag for them, but maybe next year. This year I just wrote on the envelope…

Do you have any idea what happens when you do this??  Well, for starters, you better be stocked up on Kleenex. Seriously.

They say the most amazing things…things I know I would have never heard, never known.  And definitely things no one would remember in 11 or 12 years. And also the book starts to look really cool…

different page choices…and handwriting…

and even stickers…

(Lincoln is in a Spanish immersion program…so I guess he better be able to still read Spanish when he’s 18 otherwise he’ll never know what his Kindergarten teacher had to say!)

Some were thoughtful about page choice, wrote on top of illustrations…

…but mostly they just made a mom cry.  The good kind.

I found myself thinking about my own lifetime of teachers…geez, I don’t even know how many that would be. Some of them I’m sure I couldn’t even remember. But I can hardly wait for the boys to get to see these books…to read these amazing, generous things people said about them. (I know, I know, I have to wait, like more than a decade…and I don’t really want it to go fast…and these books will just keep getting better and better…but still, I can hardly wait.)

“Kid, you’ll move mountains!”

I love that.

So, if you have kids in school…it doesn’t matter how old they are…I highly recommend this little project.

“Your mountain is waiting.”  (sigh)  Can you tell how much I’m going to cry at high school graduations?

Thank you, Pinterest, for this little gem. Such a great idea!

New Year Traditions

OK. So, I still haven’t posted the traditional dish my in-laws have on New Year’s Day – cabbage rolls. I can’t seem to sit at the computer long enough to get it finished.

I sorta made this resolution about getting more organized.

It might have included something about making sure all the “chores” were done before I sat down to Facebook/Twitter/blog about something.

It also might have included mandatory laundry nights. Which are really cutting into my cooking/photography/blogging time.

But everyone has clean underwear. This might or might not be a reasonable trade off. I’m still undecided.

So here’s my compromise. The cabbage roll recipe (which was in the family recipe collection I made for my mother-in-law last month) will be in this post…but the photos are not mine. They look like the ones we make…but they are not. Full disclosure.

This photo of black-eyed peas, however, is mine…because you simply can’t go through a New Year’s Day in the south without some. Can I get an “amen?”

Cabbage Rolls and Black-Eyed Peas.

I just read something on this great blog about how the black-eyed pea tradition came to be. I have not researched it. I have no idea if it is true. But it makes for a good story…poverty to prosperity. I like it.

Since I am an extraordinary procrastinator, the stores were out of the quick-fix canned black-eyed peas by the time I went looking for them. Which was roughly 45 minutes before I wanted to eat them. (See resolution about being more organized.) So I had to get the dry ones in the bulk section – which I think are tastier, but did not fit into the 45-minute timeline I had in mind. Time to improvise a little.

Instead of the overnight soak method I would typically use, I threw the peas in a pot of boiling water for about 10 minutes. Then heat off, cover on, I let them stand for about 30 minutes. An hour might be better if you aren’t as impatient as I am…although these particular peas (which were on the small side) were nice and soft after just 30 minutes. So it worked out. Which is why I never learn the lesson about not procrastinating.

Then I drained them and added them to a pan of sautéed onions and garlic and a nice ham bone. Chopped bacon would work, too. (I just happened to have a ham bone in the freezer. I like to keep spare pig pieces there.) Then I stirred in chicken broth to the consistency I liked. You’ll need to salt and pepper generously and let simmer for 15 minutes. Or, in my case, until everything was warm enough to at least pass as completely cooked.

We had them with the cabbage rolls over rice. Yum.

When my in-laws make cabbage rolls they are usually doing it with a huge group of people for a New Year’s Day party. They fill up one of those giant electric roasters. You certainly don’t have to make that many…but they do freeze really well. So…maybe not such a bad idea!

Not my photo. I was doing laundry instead of taking photos. This is from alloccasioncatering.org
STUFFED CABBAGE ROLLS

5 pounds ground beef
5 pounds ground pork
1 3/4 pounds bacon – ground up and mixed with other meats
6 eggs
5 cups rice
Salt and pepper
Mix above ingredients together to create stuffing.
3-4 cans crushed tomatoes
3-4 cans sauerkraut
3 heads cabbage
3-4 onions, sliced
Water
Blanch the large cabbage leaves so they are flexible enough to roll. Fill and roll cabbage leaves with meat and rice stuffing. Use the left over cabbage leaves to line the bottom of the roaster/large pan. Stack cabbage rolls in the pan, layered with sauerkraut, and pour the canned tomatoes throughout. Fill roaster a little more than halfway with water and place the sliced onions on the top. Cover and cook at a very low temperature for 10-12 hours. Check top rolls to see if rice is soft. Makes enough cabbage rolls to feed a huge New Year’s Day crowd.

Obviously you can adjust these numbers down to make a smaller batch. Also, they cook well in a Dutch oven on the stove or in the oven (at low-medium heat.) I’ve also put them in a single layer in a casserole dish, covered, in the oven. That worked nicely.

Another little tip we’ve discovered is that if you roll them too too tightly, it is harder for the rice to get steamed/cooked. So while you want the rolls tight enough to stay together, don’t get crazy. Leave them a little loose.

Alright. I must go.

Several “chores” have cropped up since I started this. I can’t toss out the resolutions yet…we’re only on Day Four.

But you can still hang out on your computer. So why don’t you write to me and tell me about your New Year’s traditions…or resolutions. Unless one of your resolutions was to spend less time on the computer. Then you should probably scoot.

I’ll be folding laundry.

‘Tis The Season

Gingerbread Houses!!

While we were at my in-laws’ house last weekend for a birthday celebration, a gingerbread village was constructed.

Complete with streets and cars, of course! Aren’t they all so cute?

I didn’t make one. But my four-year-old helped with one (which means he paid close attention to the construction of one house in particular while trying to steal as many pieces of candy as possible.)

I was just thrilled to have the cute little creations around without having to do all that tedious work. And it can be tedious.

And this was one of my favorites…a snow angel!!!

Gingerbread houses make me feel festive (even if it is nearly 80 degrees outside!) At least it’s snowing somewhere!!

Gift Idea…A Family Cookbook

I have some friends who like to give me a hard time about my from-scratch baking and the sometimes-semi-gourmet nature of my kids’ lunchbox contents. This post is for them. This past weekend was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday celebration. And there had to be cake. My husband wanted to decorate a cake with our four-year-old…so they just needed a canvas. I had a box full of decorations and some fondant…so I handed over three layers of blank chocolate frosting…and somehow a monster truck came to be. And yes, the first “N” is actually a “Z” turned on its side. We ran out of “N”s.  And the other “N” might or might not have gotten broken.   My husband placed the letters and our son did the rest. Fondant. Cookie cutters. Sprinkles.

Oh, except for the border on the bottom of the cake – I might have had something to do with that.   Now, some of these friends of mine might imagine I had a hard time with this being THE birthday cake. I did not. (OK, there might have been a brief flash of panic for just a few moments as those four-year-old little hands starting placing fondant…but it went away. Really.)

And there’s a good reason I wasn’t as concerned with the cake as I usually am.   I’ve been a little busy with something else…

This was so much fun to make. Easily one of my favorite gifts I’ve ever given.

“Kitchen Memories: A Collection of Favorite Family Recipes”

Months ago my mother-in-law was talking about some very old family recipes – things made by her mother and her grandmother – and she was expressing some concern that, one day, when she is no longer making them, no one will be making them.

So the simple idea to gather and save all the meaningful family dishes into one collection was born.

Family members sent in their recipes and memories about the dishes and the people who made them…and some great old family photos.

I made most of the recipes, photographed them and compiled everything with the family photos and memories. My husband had several weeks of eating food from his childhood that he certainly did not complain about.

Some things I learned or was reminded of:

1. Most of people’s memories were only triggered by the food – the actual recollection was about the quality time spent in the kitchen or around the table. Grandchildren told of playing with bubbles in the sink and about making what seemed like a thousand batches of chocolate chip cookies (not necessarily about eating them!)

2. There was a strong theme of love demonstrated through the daily ritual of food preparation…the idea that this line of women dedicated a significant amount of themselves to the very careful and loving feeding of their families. Every day. Every meal. For years. And years.

3. I recognized that in the menus from two and three generations back there was such simplicity in the food. They ate what they had. Some of the old recipes literally called for the “canned tomatoes from the garden” and the chicken and beef came from their own land.

4. It also got me thinking about what my children and possible future grandchildren would submit to a similar project. And then I started to panic about not having enough regular “favorites” in the rotation…about not having holiday must-have recipes cemented into the line-up…reconsidering the notion of taco night or pizza night just to throw in another possibility for childhood memories…but then again, I tend to overthink those kinds of things and panic for no real reason. I know.

Mostly, I hope, my mother-in-law saw it as an expression of appreciation for the thousands of meals she’s put on the table in front of her family. And, as my husband put it, that she feels honored for “perfecting the tastes and smells that would help us define ‘home’ forever.”