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Posts Tagged ‘peace’

Too much input

This morass, I thought then, must be a symptom of too much input. Move toward a place so small that everything could be known.

—Kristin Kimball, The Dirty Life

I realize this quote doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on its own. But the phrase “too much input” has stuck with me ever since I read it in Kimball’s lovely memoir on farming and love (along with its words about satisfaction and success).

yellow tulips

Kimball found herself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options in the world – where to live, where to work, whom to date, how to build a life that would sustain and nourish her. She found solace, eventually, by moving to a rural area and focusing on what she could see and feel: an old farmhouse, a few acres, a gaggle of assorted farm animals.

She admits her own folly in thinking she could know everything about her new home: its deep layers of complexity render it still mysterious, a decade later. But as her horizons narrowed in some ways, she found herself living with more intention, more focus, less distraction, even as her to-do list grew by leaps and bounds. (The work on a farm is literally never done; as the granddaughter of two sets of farmers, I watched this truth play out during all my childhood summers.)

I often find myself bewildered, overwhelmed, by the number of possible choices on any given day: where and what to eat, which groceries to buy (Organic? Local? In season? None of the above?), how to dress, which book or blog or tweet to read next. I worry about making the right choices, as if there were one best answer to everything. And everyone, from my family and friends to the great clamoring chorus of the Internet, has an opinion.

Too much input. Maybe, then, the answer is to pull back a little.

I love the community provided by my online life, and I love the vibrancy of working in a bustling city neighborhood. But I need more quiet, less input, more space for pondering and mulling, in my life. I am not sure what that looks like: a social media fast, closing the computer at a certain time every night, going to bed earlier, making more time to journal. Perhaps all of the above.

I am not in a position right now to make a literal move to a smaller place (though I miss the ease of knowing and being known in the small Texas towns where I grew up). But reducing the volume of input, clearing those channels to clear my mind and spirit? That sounds awfully good to me.

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I’ve always loved summer for all the obvious reasons: no school, long light evenings, road trips to visit friends and family, lazy afternoons spent at the pool or sprawled across my bed reading. (Of course, some of those pleasures have shifted or disappeared in adulthood.)

Summer in Texas is so long that I’m always aching for cool temps by the time they roll around. So, since moving to the Northeast, I’ve come to appreciate summer in a new way. It’s chilly (or frigid) for so much of the year here that I’m savoring every bit of summer as never before.

book sandwich raspberries farmers market

A reading lunch at the farmer’s market

I love the way the light moves across the wooden floorboards in our apartment, starting early in the morning and not fading away till nearly 9 p.m. I love the cool breezes that waft (most of the time) through every open window, and the whir of the box fan as we lounge in the living room. I’m grateful for the window a/c unit in our bedroom, newly reinstalled, but while J likes to hole up in there, I prefer to be out in the living room, where it’s warmer but lighter, more open.

This summer has been hot so far – the last few weeks have felt more like Texas than Massachusetts – but apart from a few sweaty subway rides and an aversion to turning on the oven, I don’t care. For as long as it lasts, I am addicted to summer.

I am digging into stacks of summer reading and eating pints of Ben & Jerry’s raspberry Greek frozen yogurt with chocolate chunks. I am buying bags of cherries and pints of blueberries, and walking down to the Copley Square Farmer’s Market at least once a week for raspberries in blue paper pints, sleek golden zucchini and other goodies. We are eating pasta with fresh tomatoes, zucchini quesadillas, homemade pizza with mozzarella and fresh veggies (my one reason to turn on the oven). We are drinking gallons of Simply lemonade (plain and raspberry). I am stopping by Starbucks for the occasional iced chai (and air-conditioning).

starbucks iced chai

I’m wearing every skirt I own, especially the white linen one and the colorful cotton ones, and eyeing my favorite stores for more sundresses. I am reveling in bare legs and red toenails and new freckles and sandals every day. I am loving the Sunday evening cookouts at Ryan and Amy’s, and regular walks on the beach with J. Most of all I love the long, lazy evenings, when I putter or read or do a little writing, stretching my arms and legs and heart into the endless possibility that is summer.

What are your summer addictions?

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Last Friday, I came home from work early (thank you, summer hours), started a load of laundry, gathered up a scribbled list and a handful of pseudo-cloth reusable bags, and headed to the grocery store for the first time in almost a month.

With all the traveling I did in June – first to Texas, then to the Glen, then to Maine for a wedding weekend – and all the social commitments that filled the half-weeks I was home, I cooked (by my estimation) less than half a dozen meals. My husband did a bit of shopping here and there, for himself (he only went on one trip with me), but by the end of another week, the cupboards had grown bare again.

raspberries farmer's marker

Raspberries at the farmer’s market (before the grocery store)

I was astonished at how satisfying it felt to roll the squeaky cart down the familiar aisles, starting with the produce section (peaches, avocados, tomatoes, bell peppers) and moving on to the fresh cheeses (mozzarella) next to the bakery (a chewy baguette). I picked up a few staples (chicken broth, corn tortillas, pasta, pizza crust, the tomatillo salsa we can never get enough of) before moving on to the meat case (chicken thighs) and the refrigerated section (milk, lemonade, yogurt, frozen blueberries for muffins). And the whole time, I could feel my body relaxing, my spirit exhaling.

I wasn’t even buying a week’s worth of groceries to turn into meals. My forethought extended only to the staples mentioned above, and to cereal and milk for the next week’s breakfasts. Mostly I was grabbing what I knew we needed, and what looked good to eat on a night too hot and sticky to warrant turning on the oven.

We ended up making non-toasted bruschetta with the baguette, tomatoes and mozzarella that night, topped with curving leaves from my basil plant and splashed with olive oil and apple balsamic vinegar. We dipped bright raw slices of orange bell pepper into hummus, and drank sweating glasses of raspberry lemonade. Afterward, the plates and cutting boards and knives jostled pleasantly in the sink, a welcome contrast to the sad, solitary glasses and spoons and cereal bowls of late.

Shopping for food – lots of it, not just running to the store for a quart of milk or a bag of tortilla chips – plants me squarely in the middle of my own life. Buying fresh produce, glossy and firm but not likely to stay so for long, requires corresponding faith that I will be around to eat it. Stocking up on staples betokens a hope that I’ll be planning and executing meals for the long haul, not just tonight, but this weekend and next week and even later this month, when the pasta and rice and baking ingredients will still be usable.

I’m looking at recipes again, jotting down ingredients, planning meals in my head. I’m washing whole sinkfuls of dishes, not just the occasional fork or mug or bowl. I am back to inhabiting my own life, living in this kitchen, this pantry, this dining-room table. I am acting on my deep instinctual need to provide nourishment, but I’m also delighting in spicy sauces and milky mozzarella and the tart, sweet taste of raspberries eaten by the handful.

In short: I am tasting my own life again. And it is delicious.

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Sometimes

Sometimes all the bad news seems to hit at once, until you start to fear picking up the phone when a family member calls, afraid someone else is sick or in trouble or dying.

Sometimes you work hard all day and seem to produce exactly nothing, crossing items off a to-do list that seems imaginary and unimportant, and you leave craving real, tangible results – anything instead of words and pixels on a screen.

Sometimes the weather swings wildly from frigid to balmy, matching your moods when you can’t figure out how to navigate the roller coaster of life and work and loss (see above).

Sometimes you go home planning to relax and end up scrubbing the sink and toilet and stove top at 11 p.m., promising yourself you’ll get up and wash the dishes in the morning.

Sometimes you long to write something, anything, but can’t figure out what to say.

Sometimes you ache for a project to sink your teeth into, a novel or memoir or collection of essays, something that will make all the bits of disjointed writing and scribbling (and increasingly chicken-scratch handwriting) make sense. But you are fresh out of ideas.

Sometimes you read and read till your eyeballs nearly fall out, because books make you laugh and cry and think and provide a place of escape, and yet you still can’t seem to muster up the creative juju to start writing one of your own, even though you want to.

Sometimes, when this happens, you need to stop.

Sometimes you need to make a pot of soup just for you, chopping and stirring and simmering, even though there is no one else to enjoy the steaming golden liquid eaten with crumbled crackers from a red bowl.

Sometimes you need to go out for crepes filled with apples and pears and Brie and cinnamon, and a spectacular movie with a dear friend.

Sometimes you need to take a few days off, because your beloved college roommate and her husband are coming to visit, and it’s time to soak in community for a while.

Sometimes you take a deep breath and step back from the Internet, prying your fingers away from the keyboard, trusting that when you come back, after a few days of laughter and long walks and good conversations, your little corner of this global web will still be here, and your readers, however few, will not abandon you.

Sometimes you need to give yourself the advice you would give a dear friend, which is: Relax. Breathe. Sleep a little longer. Enjoy some time with the people dear to you. Scribble a few ideas in a notebook. The rest of the words will come.

(As you may have guessed, I’m feeling seriously burned out – and I have company coming in today. So I’ll be back in about a week, friends. See you then.)

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And let it be enough.

The countdowns have begun. Four days till Christmas; three days till Christmas Eve; one more day of work before J and I take a step back from our usual lives to spend some time with family. The gifts are all bought and mostly wrapped; the Christmas cards are finally sent; the packing lists are in progress. And despite the fact that I’m not technically behind on anything, I’ve been feeling the stress.

Fortunately, there are a few antidotes, mostly my usual lifesavers: time on the couch with a hot drink or a book; a wee bit of knitting (or even yarn-winding); some let-it-all-out journaling sessions. Homemade soup; flickering candles; holiday episodes of Friends (we wrapped presents the other night while cracking up at the Holiday Armadillo).

Two favorite antidotes to stress: twinkle lights and a holiday movie.

One new antidote for me this year is Marianne Elliott’s series of “peace offering” emails. She’s been sending one a day for the last month, and they’ve encouraged me to stop and take a deep breath (or several) amid the encroaching holiday frenzy. (I love this time of year, but it does get hectic.)

I confess I haven’t taken up daily meditation or pranayama breathing, both of which she recommends – but I have been reminded to relax, breathe deeply, be kind (to others and myself), practice gratitude, and get some sleep. And most importantly: to do what I can do, and let it be enough.

Taking a deep breath

This is key for me, as an overachiever, a list-maker, a people-pleaser and a woman – we are always trying to do more, accomplish more, give more, be more. And it has been so helpful for me to limit the size of my to-do list – sometimes to choose two priorities, as Sarah suggested recently, and other times to simply do what I have time or energy for, and let the rest go. And – this is the secret – not to beat myself up over it later. To decide that whatever I can do – whatever I can be – is not inadequate or imperfect or lacking, but enough.

As we head toward the weekend of Christmas, I hope you, too, can find a way to do what you can, let the rest go – and let it be enough.

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Last month, I wrote about my need for a neighborhood – and how the smallest church I’ve ever been a part of, with the simplest, most stripped-down services, is becoming my place of home, of rest. Felicity commented (on that post) that she’d heard of city churches stripping down their production values to appeal to overstimulated city dwellers. And the more I think about that, the more it fits. That isn’t why we chose Brookline, but it’s certainly part of why we’ve stayed.

I’ve been a part of three big churches in my life (plus more, when I was a kid) – and all of them are high-production in some way. My parents’ church has an organ, a choir, an occasional orchestra (in which I used to play flute), and a big, extravagant Easter pageant every two years. (I sang and acted in said pageant half a dozen times, and loved it.)

My church in Oxford, though it follows much of the liturgy of the Anglican church (particularly for prayers and communion), has a praise band and snazzy PowerPoint slides and lots of events every day of the week. If, during my time in Oxford, I’d wanted to be at St Aldates every night, I could have. (And as an expat student – often a lonely one – I adored the community there.)

Finally, my church in Abilene, though perhaps simpler than the other two, is high-production in the way of most big churches. There are a lot of details to iron out when you’re serving a congregation of two thousand or so. There are baptisms and baby blessings and Senior Sunday every May, and Wednesday night events and praise teams and semi-annual church retreats and oh my, it’s no wonder my husband used to get a little stressed when he helped organize worship and plan events. Make no mistake: we loved it, and we miss it. But since moving to Boston, I’ve become so grateful for simplicity.

Brookline is housed in a small brick building, whose graceful blue-gray walls, vaulted ceiling and large windows let the light in (and recall its original existence as an art gallery). Our services contain almost no flash – but they bespeak a quiet sincerity I find restful. We certainly don’t all agree on matters of theology (or other things, I’d wager), but most folks seem more inclined toward thoughtful discussion than toward argument. We all pitch in to make the service happen, wash the dishes afterward, bring snacks before worship, bring food for our monthly potluck. And no one has any interest in making things complicated or fancy for their own sake. Which, in a city where life often requires a lot of complicated effort, is a balm for my soul.

I’m working on making our apartment into a similar kind of haven – look for a post on that soon.

Where do you find haven and quiet space in your life?

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a bit of mending

Recently, my life feels like a mad swing between two poles on a pendulum. The house is either sparkling clean in preparation for guests, or dusty and untidy, dishes piled in the sink, after they’ve gone. Our weekends are either crammed with social engagements, or they stretch out ahead of us, long and lazy (how grateful I was, this past weekend, for the latter). Our meals are either elaborate and delicious (chicken curry with jalapenos and sweet peaches) or quick renditions of the tried-and-true standbys (homemade pizza, pasta tossed with tomatoes and basil, burrito night). (Tasty, but boring after a while.)

Similarly, my mind is either frantically cluttered, chasing a to-do list longer than my arm, tearing through books to review, trying to keep up with friendships and freelance projects and the demands of the day job, or blissfully serene, affording plenty of time to curl up with a Madeleine L’Engle novel on a Saturday afternoon. There hasn’t been much balance, or indeed much in-between time.

Mending, I’ve discovered, can be an antidote to this crazed back-and-forth – a chance to stop, in the middle of commitments and commutes, present stresses and future worries, and focus on one little thing. I’m no professional seamstress (I knit better than I sew), but I can sew on a button, mend a torn seam, insert a clear snap on a shirt placket in the place where it tends to gap open. And there’s satisfaction in threading my needle with just the right color of thread, and making tiny, precise stitches to close a hole or adjust a fold or hold a seam together. I’m always amazed by the strength of those tiny stitches, and the sense of accomplishment I get afterward.

Again and again, when I get frantic and tired and spread thin, I have to remind myself: the small steps are often the most effective ones. Washing a sink full of dishes. Making my bed in the morning. Sipping tea or savoring fruit sorbet in the evening, over an episode of Friends or The Mary Tyler Moore Show or a chapter of a good book. Sorting the books and magazines into neat stacks on the coffee table. And mending a hole in a skirt or anchoring a stray button back where it belongs.

Does anyone else derive this kind of pleasure from mending, or from another small, tactile (but enormously satisfying) task? And how do you “mend” your life when it all starts to unravel?

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Well. I don’t know where the last week went.

Between having Abilene friends in town, a couple of evenings out with other friends, my Monday night class at Grub Street and my regular coffee night with the girls, I somehow spent seven evenings in a row away from home, returning to collapse in front of the computer for a little while before crashing into bed. I didn’t cook. I did maybe one load of laundry. And I ended up thoroughly exhausted.

This dizzyingly social spell came, of course, after a long, hard, lonely winter – it seems it’s feast or famine around here. And while spending time with friends is a feast – one for which I have longed, as we settle into this new Boston life – spending time at home, with my husband, is its own kind of feast. And I missed indulging my domestic tendencies – it’s so satisfying to have my nest in order, and it can be so wearing when everything gets out-at-elbows.

Sarah addressed this same issue lately, confessing she has felt spread thin, and then recommending a small step (or two) back toward normalcy, toward balance, toward peace. For me, the small steps came in a quiet evening at home, in which I did a couple loads of laundry, splashed around until all the dishes were done (for the first time in I won’t tell you how long), painted my toenails bright summery pink, and made a summery pasta salad, creamy with goat cheese and juicy with cherry tomatoes. We ate it warm in bright ceramic bowls, at the cafe table on our porch. A tiny Asian girl walked by holding her grandmother’s hand, and when Jeremiah waved to her, she waved back, solemn under her black bangs.

I know we’ll have a few more zany weeks like this one, as summer brings visitors, vacations and its own kind of busyness. But I’m hoping to strike a better balance most of the time. To make time for dinners on the porch, small but vital acts of self-care, pulling warm lavender-scented sheets out of the dryer, baking something delectable, and curling up with a beloved book on the couch. (The other night it was The Saturdays, and I am newly in love with every member of the Melendy family.)

What small steps help to re-balance you, when life goes off-kilter or just gets over-busy?

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The literary world, at least in the US, has been all abuzz lately about the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. The official date was last Sunday, and I reread the book last weekend for the first time since ninth grade. I’m a fast reader, so it only took me a couple of days, but I’ve been thinking about it for a week.

I remembered the basic storyline: black man accused of raping a white girl, defended by a white lawyer in an Alabama town in the 1930s. And something about a creepy neighbor…? That was about as far as I got. I had forgotten all about most of the minor characters – Miss Maudie Atkinson (a neighbor and friend), Mr. Heck Tate (the sheriff), Miss Caroline (the bemused first-grade teacher), and Dill (the summertime friend). I’d forgotten how deeply Scout and Jem mused and thought about the world; how fiercely Atticus loved them and they loved him; I’d forgotten the pitch-perfect crafting of the last few chapters, when justice is finally served by the last person you’d ever think of.

There’s a good deal of debate about why Nelle Harper Lee never wrote another book. (She has lived quietly in Monroeville, Alabama, for many years now.) But I wonder if she simply said everything she needed to say with this one.

It’s a story about friendship – Scout, Jem and Dill; Scout, Jem and Calpurnia; the children and Miss Maudie Atkinson; even the children and Boo Radley. It’s a story about race relations, obviously, and the paramount importance of treating people like people, no matter who they are. It’s a story about family, and bravery, and childhood, and growing up.

I can’t hope to add anything new to the essays and blog posts and discussions and school essays, and the classic movie with Gregory Peck – everything that has swirled around the book for the last fifty years. But I love it. And I hope my children love it. (And I think you should read it, if you haven’t already.) And I hope my kids and my friends and I will remember, long after we’ve forgotten the finer points of the story, that “you never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” and that because they do no one any harm and make music for us to enjoy, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

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