When it’s too much, do something else.

I used to babysit for my friend S’s six-month-old child. The baby was a generally pleasant little guy, but when tired or if startled, he could get into cycles of sadness. Like so many of us, he immediately focused on the negative and was inconsolable sometimes. What I realized, especially with a small one who couldn’t use words to work his way out of his problems, was that sometimes distractions are life-giving. If I could get a sad baby to engage with a new toy, to listen to me sing, or to touch the textured wood on the bench outside, I had a chance of making him happier. Focusing on something else was enough to bring solace.

Lately, I’ve been spending time with other people who, as adults, having this problem: and I’ll confess, it’s sometimes me too. Focusing on one negative thing leads to another, and then to another. In that spiral, my brain stubbornly tells itself, “you must solve these problems in order to feel better. You must be miserable till then.” The tough part, of course, is that suffering, and loss, and emotional damage aren’t things that are solved: they are managed. What I’m learning is that, sometimes, the right thing to when negativity has you trapped is to do something else.

When sad, bake bread.

When heartbroken, tend your garden.

When furious, do some dishes. They make a lot of noise, so that’s nice.

It’s not that the thing or the emotion is solved by the action. It’s that distracting yourself from the negativity introduces another spiral, an upward one. It gives you one rung of a positivity ladder that can take you up. Obviously, the problems are still there; they will erupt from time to time and demand your attention. But living with all your attention on that isn’t as good as doing something else, something else good or something else that needs to be done. It’s a life-giving kind of distraction.

Eating My Way Through Denver

This conference has been decadent, y’all. I have tried to keep my portions small, but man oh man. My conference friends and I split a pile of crusty bread that was covered in the most amazing roast garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes when we arrived, and it hasn’t stopped. I had a magical panini with spinach and fresh mozzarella and pesto, and when everyone else wanted to get drinks at a trendy little place after a day of learning and presenting, I chose a cup of chocolate mousse instead – it’s just been that kind of beautiful time.

Denver is a city full of pretty areas, and even though there are some standard spots (does every city have a Cheesecake Factory?) I’m thrilled to see restaurants I’ve never seen. Everywhere, there are little touches of great conservation (good public transit, recycling bins) and touches of healthy eating (a whole restaurant devoted to salads, a fresh mediterranean food fast-food joint). I’ve loved my conference so far, but I confess: I keep trying to escape to eat and to explore! I’m drinking a weird concoction – nitro cold brew coffee – as a I blog and plot a trip to a used bookstore before booking it back to the conference.

One of the most special moments was when I was volunteering at registration and idly thumbing through the nametags that hadn’t been handed out yet. I saw a distinctive name and instantly knew it was my friend T, who I was close to 5 years ago in Spain but who I’ve seen only once since then. We haven’t really spoken in 3 years, but I instantly sent her a message to confirm. Sure enough, we were both accidentally in Denver at the same time! We went to a conference session together, got dinner, and caught up on each other’s lives while walking the pretty city. I am so grateful that the world is always smaller than I think it is, and even friends I think are gone can sometimes walk back into your life at the randomest times!

Making Spaces for Writing… and Other Life Needs

Desks come in and out of my life like recipes do – part of a long chain of other friends and their stories. Husband’s desk is a big heavy blue desk that his grandmother gave him when she moved away, and I love sitting at it and remembering the feeling of spending time every weekend at her house; I still see her every few months but I’ve been missing her more lately because it’s been a while.

My desk, till recently, was the cheapest, simplest model you could imagine, particle board from a big-box store, and given to me for free by a friend from grad school. She just recently published her first book and the desk seems a little more magical because of that; still, a friend who just moved here from China needed furniture, and we could live without the extra desk, so I gave it to her. Husband and I want to (long-term) trade in the cheapish versions of furniture that have characterized our days thus far for more sturdy pieces that fit with the old-house charm of our place, so it made a lot of sense to give the desk a good home and start a search for a more antique one.

This search took Husband, me and our friend C to a local flea market, a big sprawling yard-sale of a flea market with literal piles of furniture and appliances, all slightly dusty but with people more than willing to sell them to us. We saw a variety of desks, but the one that caught our eye was this corner desk, originally 75 but haggled down to 50, that also just managed to fit perfectly in the corner of the room where we planned to put it. The story of it is pretty cute, but it also got me thinking about how I make space for things like writing in my life.

Sure, I have to take the time out of the day to write blog posts, but I also need to take space – literal space – when I can. If every inch of every surface in my house is covered in bills or dirty dishes or even crocheting projects, I will not settle in and work on my writing. The same is true for any hobby that you might dream of making more than that; the space has to be there, even if you live in a tiny apartment and share it with a lot of people. Even if that space is your pillows propped up under a notebook on your bed, you’ve got to do it or other things will keep taking your mental space. I hope that this desk helps remind me to take physical and mental space to write, when I can.

Breaks from Cooking, and My Favorite blog

One of the times I’m my most silent is when I’m sitting in front of a fire, looking at the flames and maybe listening to others chatter, but just being there myself. It’s a time when I’m not doing much: no cooking, no cleaning, no working, no commuting. The fire puts my mind into an in-between state, where I’m neither trying to move on to another activity nor recovering from the last one. These moments give me the rare chance to think about my big-picture life, not just what’s next.

One of the blogs that inspires me most is zenhabits.net – it’s run by a man named Leo Babauta and his insight on how we create habits for ourselves is usually uncomfortably familiar. He recently posted about having a flexible mind, and I felt how much the past month or so has made my mind inflexible. I want so badly for things to go correctly, I’ve allowed myself to fall into a rut of disappointment and annoyance whenever they don’t. Whereas I should be able to try something new and laugh at the resulting mess, I too often spiral into thinking that I’m a terrible cook or writer or teacher, just because I cannot do it well the first time. His blog does something that I think much good writing should do: it should make people feel understood and give them a way to move forward.

I have noticed that while I still post recipes, pictures of food, and memories of food with family and friends, I’m also posting more and more things about life habits – they are so important to me. As an adult, I don’t have teachers imposing deadlines and parents imposing goals, but I still want to see myself as a growing, changing person who is capable of better skills, better habits. One thing, for example, is that I have gotten lazy about eating salads, and they are so easy to tack on to another meal and get more greens into one’s diet. I’m trying to do that more for the upcoming month of October. Another is to make sure I take pictures both when I’m cooking and when Husband cooks, because both of us have great food to contribute to this blog. Small goals, small changes to my occasionally-inflexible mind, but hopefully they will have long-lasting impacts.

Who Taught You What Good Produce Looks Like?

Like many people, I grew up shopping for vegetables with my mother. She was the one who taught me what too much give in a tomato meant, how to choose my cucumbers, and whether the lettuce was starting to wilt. I watched her do it and learned from her; from a pile of veggies, she could always select the ones that would be good long enough to eat at home that week.

It’s hard to compare my produce with that of the grocery store, though. Especially this late in the season, I pick anything that isn’t ruptured, covered in molds or scars, or full of worms. My tomatoes and squash have little imperfections, and are sometimes covered in cobwebs from where insects tried to make their homes in the vines. I wash them, trim off the spots of disease or damage, and cook them till they are all alike. The home-grown flavor is the same whether the original tomato had a big spot I had to cut away.

These days, I’ve noticed more than the beautiful produce at the grocery store – certainly, if I’m going to buy an avocado I’m going to pore over the pile before I select, but I also notice half-price lettuce that needs to be eaten, or the piles of older potatoes that have been marked down so they’ll sell fast. I’m starting to see the marginal foods as beautiful too, because the truth is that the worst spots can be cut away and we don’t waste the rest of the food connected to those spots. My mother’s knowledge still guides me to keep myself from eating things that will make me sick, and I’m sure most people reading this are also grateful to someone in their life for guiding them toward foods that will help and not harm them, but more and more, I find myself drawn to use creatively that which would be unappetizing to others.

 

Preserving leftovers for eating later!

Husband and I have been taking a hard look at our food expenses; we aren’t being super irresponsible with groceries and restaurant expenses, but it seems like an area where we could trim back a little just by wasting less. I hate it, but there are drips and drabs of food that get thrown out because we either get sick of it, or it sits in the fridge too long, or we just miscalculate and make too much.

One place where we have room to work harder is when we have these parties – they are potlucks, and pretty much always involve more food than is needed. This time, since soup is involved, I’ve got one plan: I read online that many soups that freeze well can be frozen into ice cube trays and then stored in freezer bags until needed. I like this, because the soups I’m making might actually make nice sauces in the future.

If you have favorite ways to preserve extras after a party, do comment! I am especially in need for bread reuses (though I do love croutons and french toast for that), because i think we may have excess homemade bread tonight. 🙂

You cannot be a fair weather friend when you own a house.

There has been less cooking than usual in our house this weekend. The reason is that we had a lot of rain for a few days, and the city where we live has a rather old storm water/sewer system. The result was an inch of muck and water in our basement, coming up through the drains. Eek.

We found it Friday afternoon, and after a brief bit of non-elegant annoyance, I settled in to the reality of our weekend. With bleach and brooms and piles of wet cardboard being thrown into our trash bin, we cleared out the basement, disinfected it, and returned it to a state that was actually far cleaner than it had been before. Judging from the others who had water in their basements near us, we actually got lucky – for the most part, ours pooled over the drains and went back down as the storm water pipes got less overwhelmed. Still, there was damage to lots of stuff, and it made me decide never to leave clothes in laundry baskets on my basement floor… goodbye, fair clothing!

Just like I was talking about with handmade gifts and handmade food, this weekend made me realize that what I’ve committed to this house with Husband is more than I committed to apartments (all I’ve ever lived in as an adult). If you buy your apartment rather than renting it, you do this same thing. You are committed to learning as the home goes through troubles – sure, you may have insurance, but you might have to learn what you want to file claims about, and learn how you will replace what was lost. Husband and I spent much of yesterday figuring out what we want in a hot water heater (you have no idea the options if you’ve never had to do this), and feeling at a loss quite often.

What comforts me is that the house will get fixed through channels that others have gone through before and can help us deal with. We will be able to, someday, tell others about how we got water out of our basement and how we picked the hot water heater that worked for us, and how it got paid for and installed. Doing everything that is new and strange for me this year has been tough, but I have to think about the information about fixing a house the way I look at a new recipe: namely, someone has made this work before, and even though I will probably modify the steps and ingredients a little, I can make it work for me too.

The Ripening of an Interesting Year

I was visiting the community garden and saw this plant, big and lush and green, but until I got down at grass level, I couldn’t tell that there was indeed a big purple eggplant growing under there.

I’m sure, if you are like me, that sometimes, you don’t feel like you have seen any fruit for all the efforts you’ve put in. Maybe you are a blogger and you feel like not a lot of people are reading your work; maybe you are a student who has yet to receive stellar feedback from faculty members; maybe you are a cook whose toddler looks at every meal with suspicion despite the many times you have fed them delicious things. It can take a long time to see results from many worthwhile endeavors.

Yesterday, I visited with a former Professor of mine, who asked me questions about my future. I hadn’t had any questions like that in a long time – where was I going, did I want to stay at the place where I worked, what did I want to do next? It seems that in the hustle and bustle of getting married, starting first jobs, getting to know a new community, I had been let off the hook for future plans for a while. Now, as the beginning of the semester seems to be finally settling into a pattern instead of non-stop new demands, it seems that the future is something to be asked about.

It makes me think about the future of my writing and my cooking, but it also makes me feel like here and there, I’ve found some “surprise eggplants,” some fruit. I have written a few articles for websites, which I hadn’t done previously. I have a rough, but complete, draft of my novel. I’m running, for better or for worse, a 10K tomorrow. There are little displays of results, if I’m willing to look.

It makes me want to know what I’m looking for in the next few years, though. I think it’s easier to identify your successes when you think about where you want to go and where you’ve been sometimes. What goals are you setting for yourself lately, cooking or writing or otherwise?

The Way Running Makes me Feel about Food

I experience cravings more often than I experience hunger. I’m aware that living in the United States with a good steady supply of food, I generally can get to sustenance if I really need it. Instead, I experience the desire for something specific: a crunch, a sweetness, a richness, or a watery juiciness.

When I’m running, I am usually so focused on not stopping that I don’t experience hunger or cravings. I’m focused on so many parts of my body: knees that are reminding me how many times I’ve already ran this week, a stitch in my side, showing the outlines of all those inner organs I rarely think about, feet that absorb the shock of the hard ground for me. I’m focused on moving forward, and I’m focused on how disgustingly sweaty I am, and once in a while I focus on how much I’d like a cool drink of water. It’s after the run, when I feel like I’ve either quit a little early or I’ve totally used every ounce of energy, when I start to feel like I need some food.

I’ll drink water for a while (there is no worse headache than a post-run headache where you didn’t replenish with water) but then I usually want something fresh and wholesome: a salad, a hearty soup, a sandwich on good, chewy bread. It’s the time when it feels like my body takes over the static of my brain (which wants candy, junk food, soda, quick jolts of good feelings) and really demands nutrition.Running hurts, but it does make me feel pretty alive, and it’s now finally the right temperature outside that one would reasonably want to run outdoors. It’s a nice side benefit that running makes me excited for my butternut squash soup or a good salad prepared by Husband (never with mushrooms though).

 

Mindful Eating in a Rushed World

Today, I’m grateful that someone else is cooking – namely, the school cafeteria. Many of the people at the school where I work gather for lunch on Wednesdays, and it’s a wonderful morning when I don’t have to, in a tizzy, see if there are leftovers in the fridge. I didn’t appreciate at all what I had going for me as a child and when attending college; other people made my food, and I didn’t have to spend hours a day making or thinking about the food I would eat.

No lie, I love taking time to cook (really, you think?) – I think mindful cooking is one of the most wonderful experiences, when you are letting your worries go and thinking about food as a nourishing part of life. The problem comes when cooking isn’t mindful at all – you don’t really have time to cook anything so you choose something fast that doesn’t nourish you well, or you cook something with resentment in your heart because you wish you weren’t so rushed. No one can help having these times once in a while, and I’ve had a lot of them lately with school starting up again.

However, the one nice thing about experiencing these difficult moments of non-mindful cooking is that it makes me so much MORE mindful when I have time to sit down to a meal prepared by someone else. The folks who work at our school cafeteria are so kind and good, so accommodating of the staff and students, and I am always a little honored to eat the food they make. Plus, in this case, by not having to cook myself, I’m winning a few minutes to really enjoy every bite of salad, every forkful of potatoes, and definitely the dash of whipped cream on top of dessert. I know it would have taken me ages to make even the most simple of cafeteria food spreads, and getting to eat them quickly and in good company is a blessing.

Do you have a favorite memory of a meal prepared for you? It can be a restaurant or a particular person, but what meal really makes you grateful for food and for those who make it?