Drawer

20181127_152912(0)Recently, my family and I decorated our Christmas tree.  As we were hanging the decorations – relics from family vacations, kids’ crafts, fancy bulbs from my childhood made from beads – I held each one and lovingly remembered all of the experiences each decoration represented.

As I was adrift in memories, I realized something.  Gratitude comes in many packages. I was grateful for the little hopeful faces that gave me their creations, the parents/grandparents who went to great pains to make these bulbs and the many fun adventures we were able to take with our family.  

It occurred to me that gratitude is like these decorations.  You have to pull it out of the drawer, dust it off and let it breathe.  Acts for which we are grateful are abound, yet we don’t acknowledge them so often.  Rather, we may choose to focus on the not-so-happy aspects of daily life.

For example, Christmas has become a complicated holiday for my family and me.  My mother died at Christmastime two years ago. Sometimes when I see our outdoor lights shining through the window against our dining room wall, I think about the people who came to our door to deliver meals to our home while she was in the hospital.  When the cold air of December blows in my face, I think of how it did the same thing walking to the car after days and nights in the ICU.

It’s not our fault.  Our minds tend to go to the negative – what we haven’t given, what we haven’t gotten, how much we have missed, how much we have to overcome, etc.  Critical analysis is part of our everyday experience.

But, I realize that I cannot live in that space – the place of regret, loss, guilt, negativity.  It leaves a dark imprint on everything in my life. My kids get very anxious when they hear me complaining too much.  They are like little mirrors, showing you the result of when you allow negativity to permeate your lives.

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Gratitude is everywhere, impelling its way into everyday life.  My husband came home the other day and told me about a story he heard on talk radio about a reluctant and crabby person who was forced into keeping a list of things for which he was grateful.  He begrudgingly wrote down some half-baked ideas, “glad I got up this morning”, “glad I’m breathing”, etc. Then, he started to get into keeping this list and got more creative. The radio announcer said this hesitant observer now has thousands and thousands of items on his gratitude list now and he is not stopping.  He remains excited about recognizing the gifts of living.

Gratitude seems like exercise – you have to remind yourself to do it, and do it often. The benefits will not happen unless you perform those moves of mindful reflection on a consistent basis.  So, like getting on the treadmill to remain healthy over the holidays, or reluctantly going to the gym in the rain or snow, try gratitude training.  In the words of George Saunders, author of Lincoln in the Bardo, you could be flexing your muscular kindness.

Trees

20180824_154353“Places remember what people forget.”

Richard Powers, The Overstory

I recently saw a documentary about sentinel trees.  Sentinel trees have witnessed major events in history.  For example, they were examining the trees in Gettysburg, PA who saw the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

It got me thinking of all that trees observe.  In the White Mountains of California, there are Great Basin bristle cone pine trees that are thousands of years old.  What have they seen in their lifetimes?  Pioneers in covered wagons searching for prosperity in the new west?  Curious and inventive citizens have certainly sampled their bark for medicinal purposes.

I thought of all of the trees in my own history.  Like that mammoth oak that had the tire swing in my friend’s backyard growing up.  I was afraid of that tire swing because the tree was the size of a building!  The tire swing was high above the ground. The yard had a steep slope, so it would swing right over her mother’s garden.  One day, I twisted up my courage and attempted to master the tire swing.  I did not ride in the middle of the tire like most kids.  I decided to straddle the top of the thing and ride away!  Little did I know I would get frightened mid-flight, let go and landed directly in her mother’s vegetable garden—just a foot or two away from the tomato stakes.  I could have been impaled!  Yet, I looked up and saw the tree.  Its green canopy above signified that I was OK.

There was also another tree in my backyard.  It provided shade for the whole yard. I believe it was another mighty oak, perhaps maple.  I used to collect the large leaves in the fall and pretend they were dollar bills.  My dolls were the richest toys in all of Cortland, New York.  They had many leaves with which to buy their jewels, cars and houses.

My brother was a fan of our crab apple trees on the side of our house.  He and his friends would pick them and hurl them at each other in vicious apple fights.  I remember being scared of even touching the crab apples because our mom warned us not to eat wild fruit.  I don’t know if my brother cared.  He just wanted to engage in battle.

Trees are silent witnesses to so many events.  They not only see the mischief of everyday life, but have been bystanders to pivotal moments in history.  There are trees still alive in Dallas, Texas that observed the assassination of President Kennedy.  There are also trees around Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts that had a front row seat to Louisa May Alcott’s family history she so lovingly recounted in classics such as Little Women and Little Men.

I am on my back porch now looking at the pines in our backyard and think about all they have seen while we have lived here.  These pines have witnessed the growth of our two kids, my reading and writing back here, the kids and I whistling at the birds in their branches and many, many family celebrations filled with food, wine, bubbles, sprinklers and songs.  Our daughter finds solace in the small wooded area in our backyard.  She used to build wooden sculptures out of downed limbs.  It was looking like the Blair Witch Project in our backyard for a while.

As writers, we have a lot to learn from sentinel trees, these silent spectators.  Observe.  Take it all in.  Be in the background for a while.  Just watch. See what unfolds.

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Garden

20180614_171002“What is called genius is the abundance of life or health, so that whatever addresses the senses, as the flavor of these berries, or the lowing of that cow, which sounds as if it echoed along a cool mountain-side just before night, where odiferous dews perfume the air and there is everlasting vigor, serenity, and expectation of perpetual untarnished morning,—each sight and sound and scent and flavor,—intoxicates with a healthy intoxication.”

Henry David Thoreau’s journal entry, 11 July 1852

There is a healthy intoxication in North Carolina during these sweltering days of summer.  Farm stands abound with fresh produce and it is the time to try out new recipes. Each summer, my daughter and I plant a small garden in our backyard full of herbs and tomatoes.

I have been researching foods that help reduce inflammation associated with RA.  My sister gave me an excellent resource, The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Action Plans by Dorothy Calimeris and Sondi Bruner.  I have found that some of my favorite foods/herbs (basil, strawberries, spinach, pineapple, cherries) might help with inflammation.  My go-to fruit lately has been cherries, much to the delight of my Michigander husband.

I have been trying some of the recipes from my new cookbook and wanted to share some of them with you.  I have been making a lot of smoothies lately. With temperatures rising to 100 degrees, something cold really hits the spot.  This smoothie is my current obsession:

Cherry Smoothie, serves 1

1 cup of frozen, no sugar added, pitted cherries

¼ cup frozen raspberries

¾ cup coconut water

1 tbsp of raw honey (try to get local honey for the pollen, which helps with allergies)

1 tsp chia seeds

1 tsp hemp seeds

Drop of vanilla extract

Ice (optional)

In a blender, combine all ingredients until smooth.

So, I made this smoothie for my husband before one of my son’s soccer games.  As he tasted it, he said, “is this alcoholic?” Umm… no? FYI…Watch how much vanilla extract you put in this smoothie.  I misread the recipe and added a teaspoon of vanilla extract, not the drop that the recipe called for. It does taste alcoholic when you do that.  Not bad, but definitely not the drink to have at a Saturday morning soccer game. Lesson learned.

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The next recipe is an unusual entree, but I promise you it is delectable!  Again, I’m a little obsessed with cherries lately. They are just so sweet and fresh!  I found this recipe for Chicken Breast with Cherry Sauce and my husband made it for me.  It is unbelievably good, healthy and celebrates the abundance of the season:

Chicken Breast with Cherry Sauce, serves 4

1 tbsp coconut oil

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 scallions, sliced

¾ cup chicken broth

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

½ cup dried cherries (I used fresh cherries.  They made for a little more liquid. See step #5 below.)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees fahrenheit
  2. In a large, ovenproof skillet over medium high heat, melt the coconut oil.
  3. Season the chicken with salt and pepper.  Place the chicken in the pan and brown it on both sides, about 3 minutes per side.
  4. Add the scallions, chicken broth, balsamic vinegar and cherries.  Cover with an ovenproof lid or aluminum foil and place the pan in the preheated oven.  Bake for 20 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
  5. If you are using fresh or frozen cherries, transfer the sauce into a saucepan to reduce the liquid – making the sauce thicker before transferring back to chicken.

Exploring new recipes makes this transition exciting.  I am able to find better ways to eat clean and preserve my health.  Oh, and I also made Lavender and Honey homemade ice cream from the lavender in our garden.  I won’t add that recipe. It was unbelievable, but definitely not anti-inflammatory or healthy.  Sometimes you just have to indulge. And I was still honoring the abundance of our garden.

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Chess

20180608_070056The other night, my husband and I were watching the Netflix show “Off Camera with Sam Jones.”  Sam Jones is a photographer and film director who does in-depth interviews with actors in an unconventional way.  They aren’t selling a movie or pitching an idea. They are just talking about their craft, riffing about art. We watched the episode featuring Robert Downey, Jr.  

In this interview, Downey said he was reading a book called The Tao of Leadership by John Heider.  The author encourages readers to trust the process and let go of the typical philosophy of leadership – controlling and managing people. Heider makes the point that managing people and controlling situations is virtually impossible.

So, isn’t managing the essence of leadership?  No. And it is even possible to lead effectively without holding the reins too tightly.   

As an example of this type of leadership, Downey told a story about what it is like to be an actor in a Guy Ritchie film.  He said Ritchie keeps a very laid-back set. He even noted it’s almost impossible to see Ritchie as the director because he is usually in the background.  Sometimes, he’s even playing chess while scenes are in progress. Although it looks as though he’s not paying attention, Downey says Ritchie is keenly aware of everything that is going on.  If something goes awry, Ritchie will be the first one in line to remedy the situation. However, his interferences are minimal.

So, what does this story mean to someone who is a teacher and writer – read control freak?  Have you met any of us before? We want to manage everything! Classrooms, content, instruction, choice of books, etc.  Add to that, we have two children on the autism spectrum in our family. Control means more than choice. It means safety, security, predictability.  We’ve had schedules and routines since the kids were infants.

I guess it’s time to unlearn some of my instinctual moves.

I really like the idea of being aware, but not having to be in charge of everything.  I think that this trust issue can apply to our kids and my students. I need to learn to trust that my children will make good choices and not kill each other when they argue.  I want them to become problem solvers, not problem makers, without my constant supervision. As for my students, I need to trust that they are in my class to succeed. If they choose to not hand in their work or fail the course, that has nothing to do with me or the quality of instruction they received.

The poet Barbara Guest talks about the writer’s need for control.  “Invisible architecture engages the productive tension between the desire of the poet to control and that something within the poetry desires the invisible.”  She further explains that invisible architecture is supporting the poem and interrupts the process of writing for the poet. Perhaps this interruption is a shift in perspective or a letting go to allow the art to blossom more organically.  

There are so many things out of my control these days.  Trust is difficult when there is so much uncertainty. Maybe there is an invisible architecture at work that is disrupting my status quo, but will benefit me in the future.  Or, maybe I need to stop thinking so much. I need to, you know, be like Guy. Play a game of chess.