The Fun of an Old-Fashioned Christmas

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I’ve already admitted my life-long obsession with Laura Ingalls-Wilder’s Little House series. With that confession out there, this year my husband and I did something a little special–and a bit old-fashioned, and dare I say ‘Little House on the Prairie-ish’–for our family members. We made rather than bought their gifts.

Since I became more interested in living simply nearly four years ago, Christmas has been the hardest thing to adjust to, for both me and my husband and our family. Simply put, I don’t want friends or family members going into debt because they feel obligated to buy me something.

This year, I crocheted various items and made them into presents, seen above: hot pads for my niece; infinity scarf for my mom; regular scarves, complete with fringe for my husband and younger sister; neck warmer with fancy buttons for my older sister.

In addition to the gifts made of yarn, I also made several batches of homemade salsa for both of our families. My husband made up several small jars of horseradish for both his and my family.

It was so fun using pinking shears to cut up the card stock paper and to make into name tags. And using decorative holiday ribbon to wrap around our jars of homemade edibles added the perfect bit of festive adornment.

I hope our family members don’t think we’re cheap for making presents. I don’t think that’s the case. What I hope is that they’ll enjoy the gifts and think of us when they use them.

Did your Christmas or other holiday celebration include exchanging gifts with your loved ones this year? I’d love to hear about your traditions and experiences in the comments section.

Cookbook Review: The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen

CookbooksThere’s something about this time of year that makes me want hole up inside and drool over the glossy photos of cookbooks the way dedicated fashionistas flip through the pages of Vogue. While I have been known to thumb through numerous cookbooks in one sitting, there has been a particular piece of kitchen literature, (as I sometimes like to refer to cookbooks), that has really impressed me as of late.
Recently I got a copy of The New Midwestern Table by Amy Thielen from my library. If you haven’t checked this cookbook out yet, I highly recommend it.
If the 150 glossy photographs of scrumptious dishes didn’t already appeal to me as a foodie, I’d have read this book for Thielen’s writing alone. She captures Midwestern culture, history and food eloquently.
Her personal history–which is woven into the book’s introduction–also appealed to my curiosity and admiration of simple living. Before they married, Thielen and her now husband spent three summers living in an off-grid cabin in the Minnesota woods before moving to New York City to pursue careers (she worked as a chef for numerous trendy restaurants, but has since returned to her native Minnesota).
It was while living in the cabin that she began her love affair with traditional dishes which she cooked in very primitive ways. Since the cabin was off the grid, Thielen admits to cooking many meals by lamplight, which was all so very Little House on the Prairie to me! (I adore Little House)
This cookbook appealed to me because it felt like it’s a perfect mish-mash of her experiences: the hearty, peasant dishes of the Midwest, the rustic cooking techniques, the ‘cook with ingredients that grow in your backyard’ mindset and the expertise that comes from being a restaurant chef that influenced the photography of the dishes used in the book. (The picture of the open cookbook with the photo of the mouth-watering chicken is from The New Midwestern Table)
With this cookbook, Thielen has mastered the marriage of the traditional and rustic with the modern and a touch of elegance, which was a very pleasant surprise.

Have a favorite cookbook, magazine or foodie website? Share it with me in the comments section below.

It’s Time for the Percolator


It’s time for the percolator!

No, I’m not talking about the dance. Or that hilariously stupid YouTube video.

I mean a coffee percolator.

A couple of months ago our Mr. Coffee quit working and rather than running out and buying another coffeemaker, my husband and I decided to wait.  This decision was made in part on our being frugal.

We’ve found if we wait a week or two–or more–on purchases often times a more frugal option will present itself. That’s just what happened with our percolator.

After two months without a coffeemaker we purchased the stainless steel kettle at my husband’s place of work, a popular outdoor recreation store, and got it for about $20 with his employee discount.

I’ve had coffee from automatic coffeemakers–from restaurant-grade Bunn coffeemakers, to high-powered espresso/cappuccino machines, to the current trend of Keurig machines–and this little stainless steel perculator makes an amazing cup of java. It is truly the best, hottest, most flavorful mug of Joe I’ve ever tasted.

Drinking delicious fresh perked coffee just reaffirms my belief that more times than not, simple is better.


Reconnection: Simple is Better

I love the simple majesty of the leaves as they begin to change color and texture.

I love the simple majesty of the leaves as they begin to change color and texture.

Maybe it’s because the weather is beginning to cool off. Or maybe it’s because I’ve made some intentional choices as of late, but I feel like I just stepped off a merry-go-round, and yes, I’m a bit dizzy.

I’m going to keep it real, I’ve been struggling. I’ve spent more than a few days wondering what I’m doing-with my life, my career-where I’m going, where I’ve been and what I want.

Each time I think I have my finger on an answer to one of those questions, the pulsating beat of the universe nudges me off course.

I’ve been working like crazy for months now. It seems like the more hours I work, the more I realize that for me and my life, I actually come out financially ahead when I work less. It seems counter-intuitive but when I work less hours outside my home I find not only more creative time, but more time to actually engage in slow, simple pleasures like cooking most meals.

Every time I I try to work a lot with the aim to save the extra money, a funny thing occurs, I don’t seem to have much extra money.  I mainly just trade money for time and I get caught up in the allure of convenience items like take out and drive-thru meals.

Pretty soon I start to feel like a little hamster on a wheel: wake, work, eat, sleep.

And when I’m on that cursed wheel I start feeling overwhelmed with what I call noise: I don’t want to work on my manuscript because I’ve already stared at that damned winking cursor in my word processing software all week while writing freelance articles. I don’t want to write blog posts because, well, there’s a cursor in WordPress, too.  I don’t want to cook dinner because I’m tired from working all day.

This can go on for a while, then, somehow in the hustle and bustle of life, I make my way out of the din and reconnect with what I already know.  It makes me feel like a lunatic, or at least an ultra-flaky person with the attention span of a gnat, when I step back and realize what I need to do and where I need to be is a place I’ve already visited before…a place where I thought I was satisfied, so I’m always a bit perplexed when I realize that I’ve strayed from.

I’m talking about simplifying.

It’s a concept that sounds short and sweet and uncomplicated. And for the most part it is…but simplifying also means saying no a lot more than yes.

No to spending more on fast food, convenience food and take out. No to working more hours. No to taking on more projects.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a great track record with saying no to commitments.

It’s a struggle for me sometimes, but I started saying no to a few requests and demands on my time in the past few days and not only did the world keep spinning, but I feel so much better.

There’s been a few moments this past week when I’ve felt my shoulders lift in relief. Moments where I felt myself breathe deeply and moments when I’ve had time to just be.

I’ve had time for contemplation. My writing-even my freelance writing-seems to flow more easily. I’m even blogging. Just because I want to.

I know that this can’t be a coincidence. I don’t think it’s by accident that my spirit feels lighter or that my work just happens to be bringing me true joy and fulfillment for the first time in a while.

I know that I feel this renewed sense of peace and accomplishment because I’ve stepped back, I’m doing less and focusing on those simple, every day pleasures like brewing up the perfect cup of coffee, visiting a winery with a friend and taking a walk through the park.

What are some of your favorite simple pleasures? Feel free to share them in the comments section below.

An Oasis of the Mind Brought to Life

Back when I was in college I had a fantastic professor that encouraged contemplation in her classroom. She did this by requiring her students to buy a journal for her course and keep regular entries. Another way contemplation was explored was through guided meditation, which happened in class, and it usually preceded a journal prompt.

Before our first guided mediation my professor told us all to close our eyes and to envision a space that was uniquely our own. She said we could make it anywhere and anything that we chose: outside, inside, on earth or in outer space.

Since I lived in Florida during this time, I didn’t want my “safe place” to be somewhere tropical. I felt like it should be a location I hadn’t ever been before. I wanted it to exist only in my mind.

Before I saw it, I knew what I wanted to hear and feel in the space. I wanted it to be quiet for the most part, but to contain a few select sounds: the gentle rush of water, birds chirping and the soft sound of blades of grass as they slid between my bare toes. Besides the physical feel of the earth on my feet and the wind on my face, I wanted to feel tranquil, relaxed and safe.

I pictured lots of greenery, possibly a field with a wildflower or two and a babbling creek with crystal clear water.  My meditation destination was beautiful and serene, much like the images seen in this post from Maramec Spring Park located in the small historic town of St. James, Missouri.

My husband and I recently took an early anniversary trip to Maramec Spring and the moment I stood on the bank of the river that runs through the park, I was reminded of my safe place. There I was, feeling at peace, mixed with the oddest sense of deja vu.

I think getting away to this park was the universe’s way of reminding me that there are places in this world that are every bit as beautiful and inspiring as the worlds we can create inside our minds.

*A quick note about the pictures–It drizzled, poured, thundered and misted throughout the length of our stay, but that didn’t keep us from getting fantastic photos. I say “us” when in reality my husband took all the pictures while I looked on and enjoyed the scenery :) I think the rain helped set a mood and added to the beauty in some of the shots.

A Reminder That Dreams are Meant to be Followed

To mark the 12 year anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy I’d like to share a post I wrote on the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. The following article I wrote may only be a series of letters formed into words, those words formed into paragraphs and those paragraphs formed into a thought, but I still connect with the idea behind why I wrote this post on the day that I did, and why it was important that I share it–not only once–but now a second time.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler, long I stood/And looked down one as far as I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth;/Then took the other, as just as fair/And having perhaps the better claim/Because it was grassy and wanted wear;/Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same/And both that morning equally lay/In leaves no step had trodden black./Oh, I kept the first for another day!/Yet knowing how way leads on to way/I doubted if I should ever come back./I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—/I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference~~The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

As I write this post, I’m being serenaded by a cacophony of crickets chirping as the full, white moon rises over the tops of the sycamore trees just outside my window. Once again I am awe-struck by the sights and sounds of nature.
Sitting as I am tonight, writing by the glow of the moon and my laptop’s screen, I can’t help but reflect on life, happiness and what matters most. It is no coincidence I am having these thoughts on the anniversary of 9/11.
I watched the live coverage of the memorial service at Ground Zero today while I was at work. I had a box of tissues handy, thank goodness, as I used them quite often. Through all the images I saw today, the ones that touched me the deepest were the scenes of families who lovingly and tearfully stroked their loved ones names inscribed on the memorial wall.
The sight of all the emotions and the memories associated with 9/11 have swirled about my head for hours.
What it did for me is help me remember how I lived my life right after the tragedy. I saw each day differently. I took nothing for granted. I focused on being with my family and living my life in a way that made me happy, not what made anyone else happy.
Right after 9/11 I made the decision to move out of my own studio apartment and move back in with my parents in order to move with them from Illinois to Florida. It was a life-changing decision, and a few people told me I was foolish to give up my independence and move back in with my parents. To move across country on a whim.
But inside, I knew that Florida held something great for me. I had a gut-feeling I’d meet my future husband there (which I did within two years of moving). I also discovered my love of writing, after neglecting it for years.
It was there that I started writing my first book, Finding Justus, and got my degree in Journalism.
So, here I am again, feeling the emotions and reliving the memories of tragedy only to remind myself that I’m not living the life I want. Although I am writing after neglecting it (again) for a couple of years. With that reflection to guide me, and a blog post that felt like it was written just for me, I chose today as the day to make a pivotal step toward my future.
I submitted my written resignation notice to my bosses this afternoon. That’s right, two weeks is all that stands between me and full-time writerhood.
It is no coincidence I gave my notice today. And yes, there is a small part of me that’s a little scared, but I know I am doing the right thing.
My freelance has started taking off, and I have several book ideas in my head. If I want to write, and make my living that way, I have to take this leap. I can’t continue to straddle both worlds, the world of a full-time day job and writing freelance, books and this blog.
So I chose. And I know I made the right choice.

***Update 9/2013***

In the spirit of transparency, I will note that a few roadblocks have prevented me from writing full-time, mainly the sudden death of my dad a year and a half ago. Because my husband and I moved to another state to care for my disabled mom, then moved back less than six months later, I’ve had to work more at my “day job” than I’d hoped, but I keep persevering because I know it’s the only way to ensure things won’t stay this way.

The Smell of Memories

White Rose

I belong to a writing group and each month we meet to critique our work as well as share what we’ve written for the monthly prompt.

I came up with the prompt for July which basically calls for each of us to write about the smell of summer. That prompt spoke to me for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that over and over again science has told us that smells and memories are inextricably linked.

Even though I consider myself to be more of a fall and winter person, there are a few things about the summer months that are priceless: delicious produce selections, cooking on the barbecue, swimming, flowers and big, leafy trees are some of the best things about this hot time of year.

In addition to the things mentioned above, I can’t think about summer without associating it with my childhood, particularly the moments I spent in my grandparents’ home, especially their backyard. For whatever reason, in my mind and in my heart, the hot sweltering days of summer seemed full of wonderful events.

Their backyard had peach and apple trees for climbing. On numerous occasions I found myself plucking a sun-warmed peach right off one of the branches and enjoying the delicious fruit outside. A honeysuckle plant grew along one side of the fence. Its lush, sweet scent was a delight to my nose. I often pulled the stems out of the blossoms and relished the sweet nectar on my tongue.

Indoors, we often had big dinners as a family. My grandparents’ oak dining table was covered with serving dishes full of homemade creamed corn, juicy slices of fresh tomatoes, red potatoes, green beans (which were always bought fresh, my job was snapping off the ends) and fried pork chops. Vanilla or butter pecan ice cream was always served for dessert.

Countless times as an adult I’ve longed to go back there. Not literally to their backyard, I’ve been since I’ve grown up, and it’s no longer the same. Overgrown with weeds, the peach and apple trees cut down, the honeysuckle plant withered on the chain link fence. Gone is the magical oasis behind what was once my grandparents’ home.

As an adult I hold onto those memories and wish that somehow I could go there again. To those moments. I’d love to live them over again, as an adult. Now, I’d savor every aspect.

The popping sounds made by each green bean as I pulled them from the brown paper sack and discarded their ends. I’d inhale the heady, greasy scent of the pork chops as they sizzled in the hot grease. I’d spread a blanket under the shade of the peach tree and take in the sights, sounds and smells of their backyard.

Even though I can’t relive those memories, I do get flashes of those moments. They often play in my head like a slideshow.

When I’m making creamed corn and that moment when I add freshly cut corn to the hot cast-iron pan. When I smell the juxtaposition of the sweet corn sizzling away in bacon drippings I think about my grandma cooking the same dish. When I step out onto my patio and catch a whiff of the fragrant honeysuckle blossoms that grow below.  When I bite into my first juicy peach of the season or slice into the ruby flesh of a homegrown tomato.

In the split second that those images and memories flood my mind, I am there again. I’m wrapped in the safety of childhood. I’m struck by the wonder of ordinary events. I’m enveloped in happiness, no matter what else may be going on in my life or the world around me.

Now that I’ve shared a little about my favorite memories, won’t you tell me what smells or situations awaken memories in you? Let me know in the comments section :)