The outdoors saves us all

Just when I think we’ll just try again tomorrow —

That the volume is too high;

The spirits too low.

That the whining is but a record stuck on repeat,

We emerge through the smudged backdoor.

Mis-matched socks,

backwards shoes,

two yellow dogs eager to jump and lick

into a world where no screen can emulate

the awe of nature’s playground.

And in this space, almost magically —

the one who was crying has now found a stick,

the ones who were squabbling have now crawled under a box that’s really a boat — oh, wait, now a cave,

And my mind is stilled.

My ears now attuned

to the subtlest of sounds in the winter trees —

And just when I thought it was a day for the birds,

The outdoors saves us all.




My Word of the Year

I wiped the dry erase calendar clean next to our pantry and wrote in pretty black letters:

January 2016

A New Year is here. Isn’t it strange that we’re almost to the Roarin’ Twenties once again? That throw-back radio stations now advertise the “best of the 90’s”? That my children have no concept of screens that don’t obey you simply by swiping your finger across them? Time is a strange sort of thing.

It is also the crux of the mother with young children: the days can feel long, the years are so short. And as I try to fully grasp these little ones in front of me, wrap my arms around them, hold them tight, they keep slipping past — suddenly bigger, suddenly more “grown up,” suddenly able to get their own cups of water.

Last night, on a date night in the livingroom, my husband and I watched Michael Pollan’s PBS special, In Defense of Food, based on his book of the same name (which was one of my favorites last year). It occurred to me, while watching the special, that for our family 2015 was very much about the subject at hand:

FOOD! (But also, much more than that.)

We completely changed the way we ate last year — and went on a voyage to eliminate (most of) the processed food from our life.

It all started when I received the 100 Days of Real Food cookbook (which I love) as a gift, which introduced me to Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food — and from there I went on to read Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Food Rules. Based on my enjoyment of his books, I stumbled upon Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (which I have reviewed here before) and during this time, I also read French Kids Eat Everything by Karen LaBillon, which offered a very interesting insight into French food culture while also sharing tips for parents of picky eaters.

The books were all very different — but had many of the same themes — and in the end, they inspired me to do what I had been itching to do for awhile: Cook more from scratch and try to grow a lot of our food ourselves.

But what surprised me is how much I would love the process.

I never realized how soul-stirring this journey would be. Or how beautiful.

Even from a simply aesthetic standpoint, my heart is full when fresh, flour-dusted bread is rising in the oven and the smell of yeast, salt, oil, honey and whole-wheat grains wafts through our hallways. I love letting the loaves cool on the wooden cutting board before tucking them away to rest in a ceramic bread box. I love the uneven bread slices, sawed with a serrated knife. The way real butter melts into the warm, spongy texture.

I delight in snipping rosemary from a pot on the back porch in barefeet — and the way fresh-pressed garlic stays on my fingertips. The choreography of dancing from cutting board to cast iron skillet, the sizzle and pop of sauteing red peppers.

I love walking by the tower of fresh produce that sits in the middle of the kitchen island. What a work of art! A pile of bright yellow lemons, neon key limes, ruby red tomatoes (or sometimes a deep plum). Food this gorgeous begs to be eaten and enjoyed and cared for. It is thoughtful food — food for thought. And oh my, what about divine dark chocolate or rich whipped cream. A little truly does go a long way. (As Karen Labillion’s French mother-in-law said: “I only need a little or I won’t enjoy it as much.”)

It’s not a surprise to me that cooking shows have skyrocketed in popularity and restaurant-goers post their plates all over Instagram — we live in a world saturated with cardboard boxes and artificial additives; authentic, robust, and wholesome nourishment is longed for.

And maybe that’s the point of it all anyway. The authenticity. It’s always the most nourishing. In romance, in friendship, on our plates. For in this efficiency-focused world of convenience, it is all too easy to substitute a quick and fast version of all sorts of things, only to be left wanting more.

Some people make a “word of the year” for an upcoming year — and I’m not so sure I have one yet for 2016. But it’s easy to see clearly looking back. The word for last year was nourishment. Focusing on slowing down to fill up — on family and friends and food and faith and love. And I suppose, really, it is a theme I will carry with me for every year, forevermore.

May your 2016 be filled with people, places and plates full of nourishment.


A handful of favorite recipes you may enjoy this year:

This is the bread recipe that I make every other day on average. I have tweaked a couple of things, but it’s delicious.

I love these 5-ingredient granola bars for a quick snack.

I love all of the recipes out of the 100 Days of Real Food cookbook. And there are tons of lunchbox packing ideas and snack ideas for kids.

For whole wheat pizza dough, I use Ina Garten’s recipe, but sub whole wheat for 2/3 of it and add extra honey. (I love all of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks.)


The handwritten letter: dead or alive?

I used to sit in the back row of my university math class — or in the corner of a quiet coffee shop — writing poetry in a Mead 5-Star notebook.

Writing that way — inky pen to paper — was as much a part of the poetry experience as the words themselves, my inner voice overflowing to the page in quick, staccato sentences or pouring out slowly in deliberate, inky curves. Sometimes sideways, sometimes straight, sometimes with a doodle or a scribbled out passage. It was all part of the art.

Now, with the ease of a lap top and a more modern typing habit, I haven’t written that way for years. Sometimes I miss it — the slowness of it, the effort, the way thought leads to thought without the perfection of a delete button. The writing being an end in itself.

Author Wendell Berry says, “At first glance, writing may seem not nearly so much an art of the body as say, dancing or gardening or carpentry. And yet language is the most intimately physical of all the artistic means. We have it palpably in our mouths; it is our langue, our tongue. Writing it, we shape it with our hands.”

And we do — like potters at a wheel, the writer who prints with a pen grasped by bent fingers — is leaving a history of themselves. Handwriting stays with us: I can still close my eyes and picture the handwriting of almost all the people I love, even how my best friend wrote in 6th grade. Berry continues, “All good human work remembers its history.”

I thought about this last week while shaking my hand in the air. It hurt. I had been addressing Christmas card envelopes with a nice, slick pen, and my hand was out of shape. But the handwritten letter — which some have said to have died — is one of the most alive things I can think of. It lives on, even after its author has passed. I have many, in fact, stored in a box in my drawer that seem to speak to me in the voice of the author, like those Hallmark cards that sing when you open them.

And I do find myself at times, whether it’s dramatic or not, sort of grieving the mainstream loss of handwriting for my children.

Not just handwriting, really, but mostly, the more intimate, personal communication that comes with it. For as a generation growing up with courtship by text message and friendship by Facebook, I long for them to understand the anticipation of snail mail, the joy of a thank you card, the palpable thrill of a love letter, the nourishment of crafting words that don’t just disappear in a scrolling feed, but that stain the smooth surface of empty paper, waiting to be held, smelled, touched, folded, kept and read again years later. (My husband and I did write most of our early love letters via email, but even that seems to be dying in the wake of text short hand.)

My son penned a letter last week to a big fat man in a red suit.

He wrote the letter himself, addressed it to the North Pole, folded it up, stamped the corner and put it in the mailbox. I kicked myself when I realized I had not snuck out in the night to acquire it for keeping.

It was not spell-checked and clearly legible in Times New Roman. It was not fussed over and perfected. Rather, it was a misspelled, wrinkled hand-written note in the 6-year-old font of my first-born. And in looking at that letter and all that it contained when he handed it to me, it was as if time froze. I was able to see him as he is at this very moment. A part of his heart was captured on that paper with the carefully penned words he wrote and crossed out and then wrote again.

It is the same with the post-it note stuck above my sock drawer with a few simple words scribbled by my husband. And the note card that was tucked inside the heirloom necklace my grandmother gave me for my high school graduation. The inner front page of a book my mom saved from my childhood where she gently noted my name and the date I received it. Or the yearbook message from an old friend I no longer keep in touch with, but can still vividly recall in the dramatic loops of her L’s.

Those hand-scripted words are more than an art, but an artifact of the time and place they were written, an extension of the person who wrote them. Perhaps that’s why, even with the typed form letter, we still write (or at least copy) a hand-written signature at the end — as if to remind a world reading in print that the words come from a breathing, warm human.

As if to peek from behind the page and say:

I am here.


The cat who chases the sun

Every day, in the middle of morning, he asks me to open the door. He has a date and he does not like to be late.

I oblige and crack the door just enough for him to run past my feet in anticipation of his partner’s arrival. Soon, there she is — in all her glory as beautiful as he ever remembered:

The 10 o’clock sun.

She floods through my bathroom windows, reminding me they need to be cleaned, and peeks through the half-shut bedroom door, resting in the shape of a lopsided triangle upon my bedroom carpet.

He saunters over as if he had forgotten she would be there. Oh, hello — fancy meeting you here. Mind if I just have a sit?

Then the plump, grey house cat — who has either a head too small for his body or a body too big for his head — curls up like a croissant with content, squinted eyes and settles inside his golden triangle for a sunbath.

This is serious business; this sun chasing. His courtship is not subtle.

He chases her from their mid-morning date by my bed to a noon rendezvous on the piano room rug. I may find myself wondering where Sam the cat is — and all I have to do is find her.

With all the eagerness of a young lover, he puts himself in the most precarious of positions to attract her affections. His belly bellows over the side of a too-small window sill; he perches on the corner of the couch like a laying hen.

In his self-aggrandizing way, he peers flatly with a bored yawn through the back window at our golden farm dog who killed a rabbit and left it outside her dog house as a gift. How barbaric, he muses with a turned up nose, sniffing the air.

For as a Creature of Leisure, he doesn’t have time to think about such frivolous endeavors. When he sees a lone spider scampering about the wood floors, he barely has the energy to turn his head in its direction. If it’s close enough, he may extend a paw for a simple pat. But the spider escapes him once more. He has better things to do.

And so he does.

He waits for me to take on a knitting project, so he can lay on his back and flail about, immersing himself in a tangled blanket of yarn — an experience both thrilling and infuriating for him.

He waits for me to feed him.

He waits for me to fold laundry so he can sit on it.

He waits for me to sit so he can sit on me.

And then, he looks for her. His familiar friend who he pursues with all the ambition of a creature in love. And when he finds her, he rests like one who has reached the end of his journey — only to find an hour later, she evades him once again.


What we need never changes

They’re cutting more trees down by my favorite grocery store and naming new gated neighborhoods after them.

The view of green is giving way to mounds of dirt and construction signs boasting: “Coming soon: new high-end retail shops.” And for the first time, I realize that I now care about these sorts of things in a new way. In the way that a person who is planting roots now cares about the ground they’re stuck in. Why do we need more high-end retail shops? I thought, like a crotchety old woman, driving past. Ten minutes that way or that way, there are a dozen more. Why couldn’t we just keep the forest right there? It’s much prettier than that parking lot.

But someone, somewhere, decided we needed it and it will be there and then we will shop there and not be able to imagine a world without it there — isn’t that how it works? I didn’t know I needed another Starbucks with a fountain next to a J Crew until it appeared.

I see the same thing in my children — how quickly they fall into devastation at the store when I tell them they don’t need something they just learned existed 2 minutes ago. But I really need it, Mama. I know how they feel; I often feel that way at Pottery Barn.

There is so much novelty and distraction in this world — in fact, while writing this little post here, I went to google something and then got distracted by a frilly article I didn’t know I needed to read until I saw the sensational headline — but then I had to read. it. immediately.

And now I’m back, and I’ve lost my train of thought, but nevertheless, this helps make my point: I didn’t need to read that article. I don’t need another fountain and a J Crew.

I picked up a few new books for my children for the holiday season this year, my favorite of which I read before I gave it to my 3-year-old daughter. I sat on the dusty wooden floor by the front window while the afternoon sun fell upon my hands as I turned the soft pages. Sitting beside a to-do list and unfinished Christmas cards, some craft supplies and a bag of newly-bought stocking stuffers, I slowly read The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree, by Gloria Houston.

The true story is set in the early 1900s in a small, Appalachian mountain town. It is a story of family, community and the true longings of our hearts. But what came over me as I was reading it during the hushed hour of nap time was how simple life was. Not perfect by any means. But simpler.

Ruthie, the sweet little protagonist, wants two thing for Christmas — a doll. And for her father to come home from the war. They have little money — nobody in the town does — so they have one tree for the whole community that a different family donates each year. They grow their own food. They sew their own clothes. And the highlight of their holiday entertainment is the Christmas program at the quaint town church that the whole village treks through the snow to attend.

As I read the story I have that same thought I have thought before: I am grateful for the age in which I live; but I can’t help but feel we have lost some things in all we have gained. I don’t have to make a litany of the temptations and distractions of our age, you know as well as I — but yet, I can tell you how I try to keep peace within them. For there are the things of this world that never change — and that is mostly, what we need.

For what we need is timeless: food, water, shelter, family, nature, friends, community, God, love, connection.

And therefore, there are sacred places and spaces in life that, like a time machine, join us with every generation that ever there was. They bring us side by side with Ruthie and her mountain town and a lone snow-capped Christmas tree lit by the yellow of a night lantern. They bring us in the same space as all the simple joys that will come forever more.

When I get off the internet and turn off the television and go into the forest for a hike with my kids, I am entering it. When I use my hands and heart to craft a handmade gift, or put ink pen to cold paper to write a letter, or let my creativity make something beautiful, I am there. When I gather with friends in a warm livingroom, filled with soul-quenching food and conversation, I am entering it. When my husband and I share a blanket, leg over leg, book beside book, in the quiet crannies of the evening; when grandparents and aunts and uncles fill our pine wood table, covered in white plates and the laughter of children; when bright-eyed babies wake on Christmas morning to discover the treasures awaiting them, we are there.

This is not meant to be an anti-consumerist holiday diatribe; I just picked up (another) order from off the front porch for goodness sake. But now, I think, I will go sit on it. And I will rock there in the rocking chair and watch the children play and let myself live in a time where children live: where there is no time.

Where needs are as immediate as a mother’s lap and a hearty snack. Where joys are as plentiful as the pile of dirt beneath us. And where all we have is all we need.