Sunday, August 03, 2014

Simple Pleasures: Going Up North

Wildflowers picked from the ditches beside the dirt road leading to the cabin. 

Minnesotans may love summer but they love their cabins even more. Eric and I joke that we really messed up when we married one another since neither one of us has a cabin in the family. Luckily, some good friends invited us to join them up north recently.

It was an idyllic weekend on a lake with only seven homes on it. It was so quiet that when a car pulled up across the way, you could hear the gravel crunching beneath the tires. There were two loons nesting on the lake, and they had a tiny baby just a week old. Stasha and I stole across the glassy water in a canoe and got close enough to see the mother's ox blood red eyes.

On the drive up, we stopped at Lavaliers farm and picked hundreds of strawberries that were shiny jewels of perfect juice. Our fingers and mouths were stained pink all weekend. We cooked some incredible meals- is there anything more summery than grilled sweet corn, burgers and watermelon?

We slept underneath taxidermy dear heads in a genuine log cabin that has been in her family for three generations. In fact, her grandfather told us that he first visited when he was just a few weeks old. There were no passable roads to the lake, so the only way in was by canoe, and that very canoe served as his crib that first summer.

Besides the complete stillness, the lovely company, and jumping off the dock into the icy cold water, I loved picking wildflowers with my friend. The boys joined us and we all picked tiny, delicious wild raspberries. We had fun turning the flowers into arrangements in whatever containers we could find in her grandmother's cupboards, jelly jars, bowls and an old tin camp cup.

After two days of slow and quiet, it felt so good to get back to my life in the city. I can see the magic of a going up north- it's just far enough that your mind can get quiet and not long enough to set your expectations impossibly high like you would with a vacation in the Carribean. And going up north isn't necessarily about packing in a million adrenaline packed highs- it's more about slowing down and appreciating what's already there; people you love, the beauty of the natural world and the way even mundane tasks can be pleasurable when you aren't rushing.

What has rejuvenated you this summer? Have you taken time for a vacation?

I filled an old tin camp cup with odds and ends found in the woods. 

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Sugar Rush

Four Pack Donut Painting by DoubleStarRanch 
A few weeks back my Dad asked Eric and I to see Fed Up, a documentary about processed food in the American diet. It was a compilation of the usual litany of offences.

There was a critique of the food pyramid, suggesting that it supports America's corporate bread basket instead of nourishing the American public. Did you know the FDA was created to sell more food to the American public? But that it is also entrusted with caring for public health? This documentary argues that there is a basic and impossible contradiction inherent in these two agendas. Fed Up also touched on the interesting correlation between a marketplace saturated with low fat, lite and low calorie options and our nation's expanding waistlines. Since removing fat also removes flavor and in manufactured food, this means that sugar or salt, or both, in large quantities are added to make up the difference. Bottom line- don't eat low fat foods. (Michael Pollan and many others have been telling us this for years.)

But information that was new to me, or that at least sunk in more deeply this time, was that sugar in nature is almost always accompanied by fiber, which slows the body's digestion, allowing it to absorb more nutrients and release insulin more slowly. In processed foods, the fiber is removed, meaning that sugar is dumped directly into your bloodstream as insulin, which is eventually converted to fat. So a calorie from an almond is not the same as a calorie from a bottle of Coke.

Donut Conversation by Mgenomgenom

This all reminded me of a recent article in National Geographic magazine, Sugar, A Not So Sweet Story, charting the Western obsession with sugar, it's ugly association with slavery and our exponentially increasing consumption of it.

"In 1700 the average Englishman consumed 4 pounds a year. In 1800 the common man ate 18 pounds of sugar. In 1870 that same sweet-toothed bloke was eating 47 pounds annually. Was he satisfied? Of course not! By 1900 he was up to 100 pounds a year. "
I eat a staggering amount of sugar every day. We don't eat much processed food in our house, preferring to cook for ourselves whenever possible. But I let my sweet tooth run the show, often having as many as three sweet treats in a single day. (Take yesterday for instance- I had a slice of rhubarb pie, a bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce and cookies and not one, but two slices of strawberry cake iced with cream cheese frosting!)

Half a Dozen Donuts by ShopAnnShen

That's in addition to all the hidden sugars I'm likely eating, in foods like peanut butter or bread. Shameful, really. I'd like to curb this terrible habit, especially with my baby on the way. If I want my little one to have a  healthy relationship with sugar, I need to cultivate my own moderation.

Cutting sugar out completely has proven extremely difficult. Limiting it to weekends via the common sense saying "No sweets, seconds or snacks except on days that start with S" hasn't worked either. Even limiting it to one treat a day has tested my willpower. What to do? Have you battled a sugar habit? What did you do to help curb your appetite?

For now, I'm keeping the fridge stocked with gorgeous fruit so it's the first thing I see when I open the door and I bought a little supply of chewing gum to pop when the craving hits. I also brewed a big batch of mint iced tea to sip on with ice and lemon- a perfect summer treat. From what I've read, cravings lessen after a week and can dissipate completely after 8 weeks. The trick is making it that long!

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Water the Flowers, Not the Weeds.

Quillebeuf, at the Mouth of Seine by William Turner
Moving back to Minnesota has inspired me to put down roots, metaphorically and physically. Having an investment in a place means a lot to me after our nomadic lifestyle. I've planted a garden for the first time this year, and I enjoyed including perennials that will take years to become truly established. My grandmother and aunt gave me transplants from their gardens, including a peony bush, a rhubarb plant that came from my great grandmother's farm in Austin Minnesota, and a pretty wisp of a white bleeding heart for the shade garden out front.

We've been here for about two years now, and I've enjoyed creating a life in Minneapolis far more than I expected. The satisfaction I feel has many sources, but one of the most enduring was a decision to focus on the positive and avoid complaints. It's that old saying- water the flowers, not the weeds.

I first learned to direct my thinking in Bikram class, where Mark, my teacher urged me to smile when I felt discomfort or frustration. He suggested breathing deeply and avoiding making grunting or groaning noises, which send the message from your mind to your body that you can't handle what you are experiencing. "Your mind gives up WAY before your body does," he said. I was amazed that I could stop grunting easily and that smiling really did make the postures more bearable- even fun. I became curious about other ways to create endurance and resilience in my mind and body.

Laughter Yoga embodies much of the same philosophy, but without the physical demands. Instead, you just need to a willingness to fake it, whether you feel like laughing or not. Mary, my teacher, says the idea is to practice making laughter your first response to frustration and discomfort to see how that shifts things.

When we moved back to Minnesota from Hawaii, I made a conscious choice to avoid complaining about the weather. Since griping about the weather is Minnesota's official state sport, it isn't always easy. But for me, complaining is not as innocuous as it might appear. It actually puts my brain in a groove where I'm actually seeking out other things to be grumpy about. And believe me, there is never a shortage of things to be grumpy about.

The weather is one area where I most definitely have no control at all. So I chose not to complain about it, doing my best to accept whatever comes and be prepared for it. I have begun to extend this no complaining philosophy to other, far more important, things in my life too. I'm prone to ruminating on people and situations in my life, forming judgments about their choices and how they affect me and expressing mystification at their motivations.

I'm making an effort to change the stories I tell myself about other people, and especially what I saw out loud about others. It's way harder than not complaining about the weather, because it feels far more personal. But in the relationships where I have been able to change my story about what is going on, I've seen huge shifts. A relationship that felt tense and uncomfortable has become relaxed and friendly in the course of a year. I suspect the major change was my effort to suspend judgement and be kind in my thoughts and words. If only I could do that in every relationship!

Yesterday, a storm rolled across the sky. I could have felt discouraged at a rainy day in our precariously short summer, but instead I was transfixed by the sky. It was a breathtaking study of light and shadow, roiling blue black clouds mixing with brilliant sunlight and shimmering white wisps of fog. William Turner would have had a field day painting the scene. What beauty.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Learning from The Peony.

These beauties came from Sevald Nursery at Mill City Farmer's Market in Minneapolis.
Peonies are my favorite flower, and have been since I was twelve years old. In Minnesota, peonies bloom for two to three weeks from early to mid June, in a glorious explosion of color ranging from satiny ballet slipper pink to the deep fuschia of a fine Cabernet. As June deepens, the blossoms swell, burst and begin to hang heavily from their skinny green stems. After a rainstorm, their ruffly layers of petals fill with condensation and their massive heads sink deeply into the damp lawns.

Cut a few to bring inside while the heads are still the size of a kumquat, and they will open. At first, it's slow and lazy, but suddenly the blossom unfurls into a glorious dish of velvety petals almost five inches wide, revealing a fringe of feathery yellow stamens. It feels almost indecent to look deeply into their centers, as though one is considering the depths of the finely ruffled tulle petticoats of the Moulin Rouge dancers in the days of Toulouse-Lautrec.

And then, spent from the effort of this decadent display, the petals will begin to slip off, in a dramatic pile of plumage, like a tropical bird molting. The pile of soft, perfect petals in a spectacular mound of color and texture is so beautiful, I hesitate to discard them right away, instead, leaving them scattered on the tabletop like precious confetti.

What is it that makes a peony so delightful? You will rarely find them in supermarket bouquets, since they are so delicate and short lived, but here in Minnesota, people plant them in their yards with abandon. They are plants that offer little in the way of daily or immediate reward. The flowering season is perilously short- two to three weeks in early to mid June is the longest one can expect. The rest of the year, they aren't particularly lovely as a shrub- just a lot of scraggly green leaves. A sturdy perennial, peonies take several years to get established, sending thick, strong roots, deep, deep into the earth. A peony bush may take as long as five years to begin producing flowers prodigiously, but once they get going, they can be exceptionally long lived plants, lasting forty to fifty years.

For me, each of these details is worth considering. The peony's enduring appeal lies particularly with it's fleeting but unfettered flowering. You must wait, and wait and wait. The buds are tight and compact, with the diligence and dignity of internal work being done. The anticipation and enchantment only grows as you watch the bud slowly begin to swell and ripen. And then, in an instant, they give every last ounce of beauty they can muster, withholding nothing of their full, rich and complete abandon. There is nothing shy about a peony in full bloom.

It's a short season, but it comes back every year, without fail. I'd like to live my life that way. I'd like to prepare with a deep inner concentration and focus. Slowly, I will build momentum. Then, when the moment arrives, I'll let all the beauty I've known flood through me in a display so ostentatious and un-self conscious that even the denouement is beautiful.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

What to Wear When You're Expecting

I've loved watching my belly grow and managed to make it through the first five months of my pregnancy without buying a stitch of maternity clothing. In fact, my strategy so far has been to avoid maternity clothing as much as possible. I have only four more months to go, I have lots of flowy summer options to enjoy, and the majority of maternity clothing is dumpy and expensive.

I'd been wearing my regular pants by simply using a rubber band to extend the waistband- looping it through the buttonhole and attaching the two ends to the button. The trick to hide your exposed fly is a very long top. (I'd heard mixed reviews about the bellaband, have any of you tried it?)  But in the last few weeks, even that extra 3 to 5 inches has started to feel constrictive, so I finally caved and bought some new clothes for my changing shape. Here's what's getting the most play in my closet right now.

1. Maternity Jeans

White jeans are a summertime staple, and these are comfortable and inexpensive.
There is something quite humiliating about the elastic top that reaches just beneath my breasts like an enormous gertle, but I'm choosing to relish the humor of the situation because it's a lot more comfortable than my rubber band hack! I was glad to find an inexpensive pair of maternity jeans in white at Target.

I love white jeans because they have a way of perking up everything you pair with them. They look crisp, cheerful and a little tropical.

2. Anything Striped

Stripes accentuate the new curves of a baby bump. 
Perhaps because this is my first pregnancy, I've wanted to play up my growing bump. I'll probably only look like this twice in my entire life, so I'd better enjoy it!  To this end, my closet is steadily filling up with stripes. I love the way they make my belly look larger- exaggerating it like a Dr. Seuss illustration. So far, I've rounded out my collection of striped shirts at the thrift shop, going a size up from my usual and looking for soft cotton fabrics with a bit of stretch. I also find that I want a bit of extra length in the torso to cover that extra curve of skin. These tops from Boden continue to be in regular rotation.

3. A Breezy Tunic

Tunics are easy and chic for summer, and they have plenty of room for baby!

I became partial to tunics while we lived in Hawaii. They are the perfect beach cover up and in natural materials like silk, linen and cotton, they are loose and breathable. Luckily, they are also great for pregnancy, often hanging almost to mid thigh for a nice amount of coverage with a free waist. I love styles with pretty embroidery, tassel ties or a delicate print like this silk style from Joie. I have a few that were a splurge even at the discount retailer Century 21 on my trip to New York a few summers back. Mine is covered in the sweetest little bunny print, and I always feel extra pretty when I slip it on. I love that it's something I enjoyed wearing before I was pregnant too.

4. A Great Dress

A flattering maternity dress in stretch jersey is a smart buy.

I'm feeling quite lucky to be at the height of my pregnancy in summertime, with our baby due in mid October, because summer clothing is so light, breezy and inexpensive. I've been wearing lots of dresses, especially in fabrics with a bit of stretch, like jersey and cotton. I normally don't do maxi dresses, as I am on the short side and they tend to make one look even smaller. However, I'm enjoying the ease of wearing more body conscious styles- in stripes of course!

Another thing I'm feeling conscious of is not wanting to show as much skin as usual. My breasts seem to have practically quadrupled in size, and I'm not eager to work 5 inches of cleavage. My mum bought me this pretty maternity dress and it is super flattering without feeling bare. I love making it look fresh by pairing it with different accessories.

I once read that on the set of "Funny Face", Audrey Hepburn packed nothing more than a pair of black cigarette pants, a crisp white shirt, ballet flats and an Hermes scarf. Depending on the day, the scarf served as belt, shawl, headband, skirt or top, but she always looked fresh and chic. If only I could be as doggedly minimalist!

5. Amulet Jewelry

Jewelry to remind you only to accept love
and kindness for yourself and baby.
Pregnancy seems almost to make your body a symbolic object. People touch your belly or suddenly start sharing intimate details of their birth stories or parenting experiences. I find that most people have been more warm and open with me, but occasionally their fear and anxieties come tumbling out too. I am doing my best to only accept kind, loving attention for myself and our baby, but sometimes it would be nice to ward off weird energy from other people.

A friend recently told me that in many eastern cultures, women wear the nazar to protect them from the evil eye during pregnancy. Wearing a protective amulet as a reminder to only welcome the positive makes sense to me and I immediately began hunting for something similar.

There are hundreds of options online, but I rather like the delicacy of this bracelet, with a chain that wraps around the wrist twice. (And of course, I love the shimmer and shine of rhinestones too!)

What did you wear during pregnancy? Did you have one or two go to pieces or did you have fun experimenting with different looks throughout?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Before & After: Bistro Chairs

Before: Our patio table was cheap and dated looking, and the grill was hogging up a lot of extra room. 
Minnesotans cherish their summertime. With the winters we endure here, being outside in pleasant weather takes on a religious fervor. Living in the city means we have to maximize every inch of available outdoor space, since we don't have a large yard. This patio is a shared space, regularly used by most of the residents in our building.

We've been revamping this outdoor room since we moved in two years ago, living with it and making adjustments as we thought of them or could afford it. We replaced a glaring overhead light with softly glowing cafe lights using a lightbulb outlet converter to avoid hiring an electrician to rewire our 120 year old house. I planted herbs in the window boxes and switched out a tired, not-so-white-anymore rug for a more durable black one to handle the heavy traffic of the front entrance. I also rehabbed the mailboxes with chalkboard paint, a great move for an apartment building where the names on the boxes change frequently.

The final touch was replacing this ghastly patio table and chairs, that's been around the place for more than ten years. I hated the cheap looking plastic chairs, and the umbrella hole in a table sitting on a covered porch. We also added a grill to the set up, but it all felt quite tight and constricted.

I found a few patio ideas I liked online at Target and World Market, but I felt they were overpriced for their quality, style and durability. I needed a round table that could comfortably seat four. I decided to see what I could find locally.

Before: We purchased 10 of these bistro chairs
on Craigslist for $70. 
We found a lovely wicker table with a heavy glass top on Craigslist that looked right at home outside. We found the chairs separately, though they needed some serious rehabbing. They were rusty and the seats needed cushions to make them comfortable enough for daily use. However, the shape was just what I was looking for, and I felt up to a little elbow grease. Poor Eric got suckered in too.

He kindly and dutifully scrubbed down all ten chairs with sandpaper and steel wool. Then he coated
the chairs with  Rustoleum spray-paint in Soft Iron. He also found replacement chair feet to keep them from scratching up the deck.

Next, I went over to S.R. Harris to pick up cushion foam and upholstery fabric. I painstakingly traced the wooden seats onto the foam, and cut it out. I used the seat as a pattern for the fabric too, adding four inches to the perimeter of the circle to allow it to comfortably cover the seat. I used a staple gun to cover the cushions, and Eric screwed them back in.

We also moved the grill to a smaller, unused nook on the other side of the patio which opened up a lot of space and helped it all to feel much more relaxed and inviting. The grill is getting more play too, since it's far easier to cook without bumping into the table and chairs. As a final touch, I've been toying with an indoor outdoor rug under the eating area, but I think there is just too much dust and debris to keep it looking great.

After: Painstaking Sanding, Spraypainting and reupholstering gave us a pretty new look. 
I'm pretty delighted with the results of all the tinkering. I think it looks far more polished and airy and I like the way the new furniture complements the iron railings and accents the orange red shades of the bricks. We've been spending lots of time out here already, and the new look feels much more inviting to me.

Do you have any "outdoor rooms" at your place? What have you done to make them more user friendly? If you have mosquito prevention tricks, I'd love to hear them!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Big Reveal: What Scares Me About Motherhood

The Venus of Willendorf, a paleolithic image of motherhood. 
If you want people to reveal themselves to you in surprising ways, I highly recommend pregnancy. A telltale belly brings a steady stream of people sharing their labor stories, offering snippets of parenting wisdom and unloading their fears and anxieties. It's fascinating.

Pregnancy in Conversation 

"How are you feeling?" is a common question, clearly meant as a friendly gesture. The truth is that my body has very much enjoyed pregnancy so far. I'm in my 19th week, and I've been quite comfortable- no morning sickness, no swelling, no aches or pains. Just breasts that have ripened to four times their normal size- perhaps the size of smallish cantaloupe. What I've discovered is that this question is often an opportunity for the asker to delve into the trials and tribulations of their own pregnancy, highlighting each and every moment of suffering. Sometimes people even seem slightly disappointed when I answer that I feel marvelous.

Another thing that happens when you're pregnant is that people start to tell you all the things you won't ever do again. Now that you're an expectant parent, heels are apparently out, (too hard on your back) as is jewelry that baby may want to grab and cling to. Going to the theater will never happen again because finding a babysitter is nearly impossible, and besides, you'll never want to leave your baby for a single instant.

What Scares Me about Motherhood

I hesitate to even go on the record with these observations, since I concede the possibility that this advice is all true. I know that having a child will change my life in ways I cannot forsee. But to me, that's the adventure of the thing. I'd like to let it unfold without preconceptions.

The thing I fear most about parenthood is a condition of overwhelmed frumpiness. In our culture, the stressed out mom who tries to do it all is both celebrated and vilified. There are at least two prototypes.

The All Star Mom

She's a PTA leading, cupcake baking, designer diaper bag wielding cliche. Her google calendar is overflowing with band practices, birthday parties and horseback riding lessons but she still finds time to have her hair blown out, pull together a chic outfit and run a lifestyle business empire on the side. Let's call Gwyneth Paltrow a prototypical example. Our culture would have us believe that this woman is the ideal who we should all aspire to emulate. If we can't be her, we are doomed to hate her because she appears to succeed where we fail.

The Mom Who Laughs It Off

She has given up totally on herself in order to meet the extraordinary demands of parenthood. She hasn't bothered to find a bra that fits after giving birth and is still running around in a sagging nursing bra with frayed elastic. She hasn't had a haircut in years. Every ounce of energy goes into catering to her family. It's all about feeding them, getting them where they need to be and then collapsing in a heap whenever possible, heaving deep sighs and making humorous, self deprecating comments about how little she's managed to accomplish. Our culture idealizes and condemns this mom too. There is a special kind of adoration  for her self sacrifice and willingness to become small in the service of others. And yet, we also wish she could just get it together.

And then, There's Parenthood. 

I feel convinced that there is an experience of parenthood that exists beyond these dualities. What babies do is simple: they exist in the present moment. That's what makes them such holy beings. We look at them and recognize how special it is to live in a sensory world without judgement. We marvel at their life of unknowable possibility.

I believe the job of parenthood is to observe the unfolding of a child's life as it happens across many years. You are a witness as they develop into unique beings with their own curious habits, personalities and talents. I believe that holding to that sacred duty should make you more of what you are. Being a parent isn't about making your child the center of your universe at the expense of all else. It's about bearing witness to their remarkable process of discovery, growth and self actualization. Of course, that means finding new depths within yourself, not giving up on high heels or the theater.

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