Don’t Be an A-hole. Read a Book.

When he needed to calm his mind, he opened a book. Any book. He had never failed to feel refreshed, even if the book was no good.

The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich

The skies are gray today. We are enduring another pandemic weekend lock-down, unable to leave our apartment. I look out at the other apartments across the street from us and see people on the roof, on their balconies, straining to get out.

To escape.

But even when the skies are blue and the gates unlocked, I feel trapped inside the confines of my own non-Spanish-speaking brain. People have told me it takes two years to feel comfortable in a new language, and sometimes, I just can’t wrap my mind around having to endure for that long.

Because I am being tutored, three times a week.

Because I listen to podcasts in Spanish.

Because Spanish subtitles are always on for whatever I watch.

Because nature documentaries I watch are completely in Spanish.

And yet.

When I escape my apartment gates, and someone, masked, speaks to me, I panic and hardly anything translates. Even Thoreau says, “We hear and apprehend only what we already half know.” Now add a language barrier onto that? Yeesh. I come home from my outing drained and discouraged.

I wish I could go to sleep with ear buds in, listen to a Spanish novel all night, and wake up refreshed and Spanish literate. If only it were that easy.

When I was in fifth grade, I did think it was that easy. For my science project, I posited that listening to a story while asleep would control dreams. To that end, I found a cassette tape and recorded my voice telling stories and describing the sights, sounds, and tactile imagery of walking down a beach. I recruited my neighbor Chris to listen to the cassette when he was asleep and write down his dreams upon waking. It was a great plan! I was sure to win the science fair.

Except that the cassette tape I found was one of my dad’s, and it wasn’t blank. So when Chris was in dreamland and the volume was turned way up so he could hear my voice describing the sand squishing between his toes, something bad happened. My voice recording ended, and in the middle of the night, Jimmy Buffett’s “Asshole Song” started BLARING:

Were you born an asshole?
Or did you work at it your whole life?
Either way it worked out fine
’cause you’re an asshole tonight.
Yes you’re an A-S-S-H-O-L-E and don’t you try to blame it on me
You deserve all the credit.
You’re an asshole tonight.
You were an asshole yesterday, you’re an asshole tonight.
And I got a feeling, you’ll be an asshole the rest of your life.

It was so loud that Chris’s parents ran into his room, confused and angry, to punch “stop” on the tape player.

Oops. Luckily, Chris reported, he did not have nightmares of being an asshole tonight and the rest of his life.

A good reminder for me when I want to take the easy way out in learning Spanish by listening to novels while I sleep.

But I think our friend Thomas from The Night Watchman might be onto something. Sometimes in life we just need to feel refreshed (likely it was not a refreshing night’s sleep for Chris or his parents). And sometimes, I think that means we need to escape real life for a bit. Maybe even leave “the present” and slip into the fictional world of a book.

When I was a kid, I loved the Pippi Longstocking books. When I read them, I felt empowered to do anything I wanted. Make a huge mess in the house, go on adventures as a Thing Finder, fight off robbers, go on picnics, skip school — lots of things that kids in their normal lives aren’t allowed or able to do. Reading those books flipped this little creative switch inside my brain, and the ordinary things (like a discarded can, for example) turned into a wonderful treasure with lots of uses. Things that might otherwise be scary (ghosts, for example), turned into opportunities for new friends. My living room couch turned into a pirate ship, and the floor was the sea, infested with sharks.

I slipped into Pippi’s world and then I slipped into my own made-up world. And it was a wonderful slip. (I am reminded of those hot summer days when my parents would relent to setting up the slip n slide on the lawn and my exhilaration in sliding down that yellow piece of plastic.)

So this weekend, as I was slipping into the slough of despond under the gray skies, trapped inside my apartment, I decided to reread Pippi Longstocking. It was fun. It was refreshing.

Emily and Amelia Nagoski, in their book Burnout: The Secret to Solving the Stress Cycle, list seven things to do when we experience those inevitable times of stress:

  1. Move
  2. Breathe
  3. Talk to people
  4. Laugh
  5. Speak to loved ones
  6. Cry
  7. Do something creative

So I’d like to skip straight to number 7 and have a reading party. And maybe we can start with a favorite book from childhood. What would yours be? Here are some of my favorites:

  • Any Roald Dahl book
  • Harriet the Spy
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • Little House on the Prairie series
  • Anne of Green Gables series
  • The Phantom Tollbooth
  • Any Judy Blume book
  • Pippi Longstocking
  • Megan’s Island
  • My Side of the Mountain

The bottom line is that it’s OK to give yourself permission to escape every once and a while. But that’s not a message that we get very often, and sometimes for good reason. When “escape” has directly to do with addiction, it’s not good. Growing up, my dad would escape through alcohol to avoid real life — and maybe also to avoid me, especially when I was a snobby, loud-mouthed teenager.

So choose a healthy escape, and read great books.

When you’re feeling discouraged and the skies are gray and you can’t understand the people around you (whether it’s the language or you just can’t understand the people around you), read a book.

And maybe read it while awake.

Happy reading, everyone!

Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, illustration: page 36 “Pippi Is a Thing-Finder” and has found a can

Sharpened Sticks and Tattered Shorts: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 3

A sharpened stick about five feet long trailed from his right hand, and except for a pair of tattered shorts held up by his knife belt he was naked.

“Huts on the Beach,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The boys are really gettin’ naked now. And skinny. And with longer hair. This book could have taken a wildly different direction if Golding had realized that the boys are basically turning into runway models.

The chapter begins with Jack “bent double” — oh, how very devolutionary, Golding. This is always a special day when I teach. I make sure to wear pants this day, and I definitely get down on my hands and knees on the classroom floor to demonstrate how Jack is “bent double” — so low to the ground, in fact, that he can cock his head up to see the underside of a tendril, polished from the bristly-backed pigs running through and to feel the warmth emanating from the “olive green, smooth,” steaming pile of pig poop. He hears the “hard patter of hoofs” and it feels to him “seductive.” Yikes. (I say that a lot during this book. I feel that a lot during this book.)

The question here is: What weird (gross?) thing in our lives is seductive to us? Maybe for the hunters out there reading my blog, it actually is pig poop … or deer poop … or some other kind of animal poop. But maybe it’s something more socially acceptable and ubiquitous like money. Do we want to get so close to money that we can feel its warmth and see its steam? In this chapter, Jack’s eyes are described as “bolting and nearly mad,” but I don’t know that that’s too far off from our eyes when we become lustful for whatever it is we decide we want. Yikes.

He tried to convey the convulsion to track down and kill that was swallowing him up.

Whoa. That’s seems pretty deep for 12-year-old Jack. And two lines down from that:

The madness came into his eyes again.

And then he acknowledges,

“But you can feel as if you’re not hunting, but — being hunted, as if something’s behind you all the time in the jungle.”

Just a friendly reminder, Readers, that this is not just a story about boys running around in tattered shorts getting sunburns on an island. This is about us. When Jack senses something hunting him, it hits us that he’s not talking about a literal beast. He’s talking about something intangible. He’s talking about his own evil nature. And, Golding might add, it’s not about Jack. It’s about us — the inevitability of our own evil natures constantly hunting us.

How refreshingly pleasant.

This is where I remind my students that just because we’re reading this book does NOT mean we have to believe in Golding’s philosophy. (I actually hope they don’t!) While we probably all have evil within us, we don’t have to live feeling like we’re being hunted down by it. I believe we have hope against evil. I hope my students believe that. And I hope you believe that, too. (Sucks to your ass-mar, William Golding!!)

But as their pee gets absorbed into the sand, so does their hope. Their clothes (symbol of civility) are in tatters, their shelters (symbol of civility) are shaky at best, their short hair (symbol of civility) is now long and unkempt. Oh, and the adults are still fighting in that war, you know, killing each other. But maybe there is a little hope. After all, hope is the thing with feathers as they say (well, Dickinson, anyway). I’m afraid, though, that the hope-birds flew away a long time ago when the boys hurled a boulder down the side of the mountain in chapter 1:

Echoes and birds flew, white and pink dust floated, the forest further down shook as with the passage of an enraged monster: and then the island was still.

Just to make sure we get the enormity of the hopelessness here, Golding mentions, “Jack had to think for a moment before he could remember what rescue was.” Jack was so obsessed with hunting pigs, he forgot what rescue was. HUH?? How could he possibly forget rescue? It’s literally the boys’ one job. The question begs: What is the “rescue” in our lives? What is the one thing we should be striving for in life? That might look a little different for everyone, but possibly some answers might be:

  • loving well
  • being kind
  • doing good
  • being honest
  • staying humble

All good things, I think. But, like Jack, we get distracted (or even obsessed) by other things. For him it was hunting pig.

But more importantly, what is it for us?

Other things of note in chapter 3:

  • Jack decides they should paint their faces in order to better sneak up on the pigs (here we go with mask symbolism).
  • Simon peaces out. The boys think he’s weird. He probably is. He finds a secret spot surrounded by a screen of leaves. This is a spot he’ll return to later in the book. He seems to enjoy time alone to do some deep thinking. (Remember that critics out there think Simon is a Jesus figure.)

See ya next time. Until then, read chapter 4, “Painted Faces and Long Hair.”

So You Wanna Be a Human? Read Lord of the Flies. (LOTF Post 1)

(The first in a series of LOTF posts. I hope you enjoy.)

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.

So begins William Golding’s famous novel about humanity’s ultimate failure — its evil nature. I first read this book in high school, of course. Then again in college. Then in my first year of teaching high school English.

And every year since.

That puts it at 17 times.

Every year, I tell my students that this is my favorite book to teach because every time I read it, I see something new! I think of something new! I understand my students in a new way! I understand myself in a new way!

I went from mostly agreeing with Golding that we are evil little buggers (back in my recently-post-graduate “disillusionment” days) to later in life realizing that Golding’s got it wrong! We aren’t that bad! (Surely.)

Right off the bat, I tell my students that THIS STORY IS AN ALLEGORY. If we miss this, we’ll get caught up (like Piggy does: “I got caught up”) in the inconsistencies, the illogic, the creepers (which, by the way, are just vines). (And if you’re having a brain fart — happens to the best of us — an allegory is a simple story with a deeper meaning below the surface. Ultimately, the inconsistencies and the illogic don’t really matter because the story of the boys on the island isn’t actually important. It’s what we learn about the human condition from reading a story about boys on an island that is important.)

It’s easy to get caught up in the absurdity of the story: So you’re telling me that a bunch of British boys from all different schools — well, except for the choir boys, who are all from one school — all managed to survive a plane crash in which the pilot died? No girls, no adults, and just a scar down the side of the mountain to show for the plane? Riiiiight.

Its being an allegory can’t be missed. While it is a story about boys running around half-naked on an island with sharpened sticks chasing pigs and each other and pooping wherever they want (near the fruit they eat — gross!), it’s really a story about us.

It’s about what we do when there are no rules.

When there’s no one telling us what to do.

Or what’s right and wrong.

Or where to poop.

So in this tropical-island, full-of-pre-pubescent-boys microcosm, life is magnified, and we see who we really are — naked, except for our tattered shorts held up by a knife belt.

And if I know one thing about being a human, it’s that we’re a touch (a lot?) narcissistic. The story isn’t really about the boys on the island. It’s about us! Oh, well, I’d like to read that!

So I invite you to dust off a copy of Lord of the Flies, and read along with me as I read it again for the 18th time.

We’ll start with chapter 1, “The Sound of the Shell.”

The boys crash land down the side of a mountain on some random deserted tropical island in the middle of an ocean in the midst of some big war that adults are all in a fluster about, hence why the boys are being evacuated. There’s plenty of fruit (conveniently) and a fresh water source (also convenient) and a pair of glasses (I wonder what convenient purpose these will serve…) and a boy who can sing C sharp (clearly this is a sign of good leadership and survival skills) and a bespectacled, asthmatic fat kid nicknamed Piggy (a convenient nerdy-loser-scapegoat for the other boys to mock — “Sucks to your ass-mar!”).

Already in chapter 1, Piggy “waded away from Ralph, and crouched down among the tangled foliage” to take a fat dump. It’s important to note that an all-fruit diet leads to loose stool. The fat kid has probably been stress-eating non-stop since the crash. And as a fun added detail, he grunts while he poops.

And that’s just a little (fruity) taste of the chapter.

Oh, and did I mention that the Hebrew translation of “lord of the flies” is Ba’alzevuv, Beelzebub in the Greek? (The Wikipedia site is pretty fun. It chats about how flies are “pests, feasting on excrement” — and let’s just remember that the boys are already pooping all over the island.)

So you’re telling me that the title of the book we’re reading is basically SATAN?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Well what better book to read during quarantine. Get ready for some introspection. Read “The Sound of the Shell,” and I’ll meet ya back here for the next post. (Don’t have a copy? Can’t get a copy? See if a local bookstore is open — maybe a bookstore near you does curb-side pick-up. And if not, read for free here.)

The story is simple, but its implications about the human condition are not. Reading it forces us to ask the tough questions — of ourselves.

So until we meet again, we’ll start with this question: What would you do if there were no rules?

Why I’m Death Cleaning My House

“After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” –Dumbledore to Harry, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

I have decided to death clean my house. In my ongoing attempt to live out one of my mantras to live simply, I want to declutter, organize, donate, and trash (LPETA, the verb). My husband is on board (and actually more of the proponent), so it’s in full operation.

And we’re starting with books. (Why? Because for the most part, the library is our book storage unit. And we pay taxes for the privilege of someone organizing the books in a clean environment.)

In the nursery room of our home we have a beautiful set of built-in bookshelves. I have loved these shelves since the day we moved into this house, over 11 years ago. Coupled with my and my husband’s love of books, you can imagine how quickly these shelves became filled.

When I lost my mom in 2009 — a year after we moved in — I inherited all of her books.

When I had my first son in 2012, we were gifted plenty of books. When we’d visit my childhood home where my dad still lived, we’d slide a few of my childhood books off the shelf and pack them into suitcases for our return trip to Florida.

When I had my second son in 2015, more books rolled in.

When I lost my dad in 2016, I inherited all of his books. We donated quite a few while in California cleaning out his house, but many of them ended up with us.

When I had my third son in 2019, more books pitter-pattered onto our shelves, including a fuzzy Bible. Yes: fuzzy, like a sheep. A sheep-Bible.

Here we are in 2020, a year of perfect vision. What better time to do some sifting and some gifting? Because really what it comes down to for all of us is that if we don’t sift, someone — at some point — will have to. A moment of honesty here: I had been on my dad for years about paring down his belongings (wrote a bit more about that here). I had even gone so far as to fill boxes of his stuff to drop off at Salvation Army — stuff he never ever used (and probably didn’t even know about). But he refused. So I set the boxes on the linoleum floor in the dining area of his kitchen. When we returned the next summer for our annual visit, those damn boxes were still squatting on the floor, taunting me. I was frustrated with my dad. I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t let me help him clean up his house. So when he was diagnosed with cancer — or, I should say, when he told me he had been diagnosed with cancer — cleaning his house was certainly not the priority. Spending time with him was.

For a two-bedroom duplex, it was a beast to clean.

So I have begun death-cleaning my house. Döstädning, in Swedish, it is the art of preparing your home in the (certain) event that you leave this earth — decluttering, organizing, donating, and trashing. Here’s a summary taken from this Time article, which is actually simply an excerpt from the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson:

  • We have a difficult time talking to our loved ones about death. But maybe we should try a little harder. Perhaps we can use death cleaning as a way to broach the subject.
  • Death cleaning is getting rid of the things we don’t really want or use.
  • Don’t leave the burden of cleaning to your loved ones.
  • It will take time. Start with a basement or attic or cupboards — get rid of that stuff you didn’t even remember that you had, or the stuff that has been sitting for so many years it is no longer good.
  • Get the word out. Family or friends might want some of your stuff. (My brother-in-law, his wife, and their two kids just upsized to a house in DC, and they’ve already expressed interest in some things.)
  • Allow yourself to spend time with your objects one more time. Appreciate the time with the objects.
  • Magnusson ends by suggesting a trip to the dump to physically throw some of your crap objects as far as you can.

I am in my thirties, and I am death cleaning. Not because I think I’m going to die soon (I definitely don’t think that — I’ve read How Not to Die, after all), but because I want to live a decluttered life now. Think about it: does it bring you joy opening up that “junk drawer” in your kitchen? What about your hall closet stuffed to the gills with . . . what? And underneath your bed, are there some storage boxes down there? And then what about your basement or attic or garage?

It’s overwhelming, but not if you start with the stuff you really don’t care about. And after you get rid of that crap, you will feel so good. You will feel like the little donkey when his burden is finally lifted.

This morning, I simply took a quick look in the bathroom cabinet and threw away some stuff. EASY.

Last night, we filled 7 fabric shopping bags with books. And even though the used book store bought the equivalent of only one bag, the books are still in motion. We will try another bookstore that was recommended to me by a former student, sell some of them online, and then donate the rest.*

Earlier this week, I took a quick look under my kitchen sink and realized that this lovely bottle of Mrs. Meyer’s lemon verbena baking soda cream cleaner was just sitting in there, not being used. So I took it out and put it on the window sill above the kitchen sink. I’ve used (and enjoyed) it a few times since doing that.

Two weeks ago, I took a quick look in my hall closet and saw a single-panel curtain I had bought from World Market with the intent of using it to sew pillow covers. I bought the fabric two years ago, and with an 11-month-old crawling around my life right now in addition to the other two crazies, sewing pillow covers just isn’t in the works for me. So I gave the fabric to a friend who enjoys sewing.

Three weeks ago, I took a quick look at one of my under-the-bed storage boxes and realized that I had a couple of maxi skirts in there that I never wear. I have a beautiful co-worker who loves wearing maxi skirts, so I passed them along to her.

Small stuff, here and there with one big project: books. I’m feeling great about the process, and the strategy of doing a little bit here and there works for me. And I’d say that it could work for anyone. It’s easy, and it’s gratifying. For even more inspiration, revisit my post “Burn All of the Things.”

So I’ll continue with the small stuff here and there. And when it comes time to assess the boys’ toys?

Pray for me.

*Update: We dropped off three big bags of books at Goodwill today. Yay.

Wise Words from Thoreau: Eat Apple Fritters

“Our life is frittered away by detail.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

If I’m being honest, the first thing that comes to mind when I read this sentence is . . .

apple fritters. (Yum.)

But if you’ve loitered around on my blog at all, you know that simplicity is something I strive for — both in my belongings and my goings-on. Thoreau (bless him) had a nice chunk of money that enabled him to simplify — to leave the conventional world, to burrow away on a farm, to ponder life’s mysteries. How nice for him. Most of us don’t necessarily have the gold bars to provide us with that. And I don’t know that I’d want to leave my family and friends to walk around a property philosophizing about poets putting farms to rhyme, metaphorically skimming the metaphorical cream off the top of the metaphorical farm-glass-of-milk and leaving the farmer with the metaphorical skim milk. Metaphorically speaking, of course. (Read the entire text here, thanks to Project Gutenberg.)

Metaphors and cream aside, details do seem to have a way of scurrying around in our lives, causing us to feel rushed and frenzied and stressed. The devil’s in the details, as they say. How very true.

And I don’t like the devil.

So onward! Onward, that is, with fewer things and fewer plans and fewer details and maybe without the devil. Feeling good about this. And looking at the denotation of the word “frittered” (used as a verb, not as the donut-noun), we see that it basically means to waste, little by little. The definition I linked also uses the word “squander” — oof, harsh. (I like it.) I don’t think anyone wants to squander or waste their life.

So why are we letting the details of our lives do just that? Time to follow Thoreau’s sage and philosophical advice — advice that probably took months to manifest into one word:

“Simplify.”

Perhaps he had simplified a wee bit much, though, in his own life as he found himself likening a mosquito to Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey:

“I was as much affected by the faint hum of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sitting with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer’s requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world.”

(When I simplify my life so much that I start befriending and anthropomorphizing mosquitoes, please — someone, anyone — intervene.)

Let’s find a nice, healthy balance between allowing our lives to be frittered away by detail and buying best-friends-forever necklaces (like this 14K beaut on Etsy on sale for only $114) for our mosquito BFFs.

It’s all about balance.

And speaking of balance, my four-year-old is adeptly riding a pedal bike sans training wheels. Because he started on a balance bike (linked here), which is basically a little bike with no pedals, he got the feel for the balance it takes to ride a bike and transitioned very easily to a bike with pedals. Highly recommend this method for kids. Dare I say he didn’t need the added detail of the training wheels.

So even those “details” designed to make our lives easier (simpler??) sometimes add an unneeded layer to the already sweet and savory parfait of our lives. (“What’s not to like? Custard? Good. Jam? Good. Meat? Good.” –Joey Tribbiani, Friends)

Take a moment to think of the tools or gadgets or apps you have that are specifically marketed to make life easier and simpler. I think of some of my kitchen tools:

  • bench scraper: I use this to slide underneath sticky bread dough to cleanly remove it from the counter. I like this. I use it. It makes my dough much easier to split and to handle.
  • KitchenAid mixer: I use this when I make big batches of sourdough. I like this. I use this. If I hand mixed, it would take more time in the actual mixing and the cleaning up of the inevitable mess.
  • standing grater: I use this for grating cheese and zesting lemons. I like this. I use this.
  • mandolin: I use this for . . . I don’t really use this. I thought I would use it for thinly slicing carrots or potatoes. And I did a couple of times. But then it was too much of a nuisance to put it together and then take it apart to clean and then put it back together to store.
  • salad spinner: I use this for . . . I don’t really use this anymore. I did use it occasionally, but now I’m mostly too lazy to rinse my pre-rinsed mixed greens. Or I rinse stuff from our garden and then just plop it onto a towel on the counter for a few minutes.

I could go on and on and on — I have LOTS (read: too many) kitchen tools and gadgets. I think the mandolin is still squatting somewhere in a deep, dark cabinet, but the salad spinner has been gifted and is gone.

Hopefully by now you’ve thought of some stuff or some apps that you have, so take it one step further. Ask yourself (honestly): Is this thing or app actually simplifying my life? Or is it cluttering. And if it’s cluttering, it’s frittering and not the yummy donut kind of fritter. Remind yourself, too, that if you have stuff that is simply cluttering (that is, it’s just sitting somewhere gathering dust and it’s not sucking any life or time from you), someone, at some point — whether it’s you or probably family — will have to deal with it. My life was cluttered frittered away by detail when I had to get rid of literally every thing in my dad’s house after he passed away. I remember trying to gather some stuff to donate while he was still alive, but he wouldn’t let me. Then I ended up taking care of it anyway. (And as an important clarification and side-note: My husband — bless his SOUL — worked very hard (harder than I) on clearing out my dad’s house and cave of wonders garage. Without him, I might have gotten sucked forever into the vortex of dusty Hudson and Saab manuals behind the Maico dirt bike out in the garage. So to my husband I say Thanks a bunch.)

Time to get rid of some stuff. And some apps. And maybe even some — gasp — books. We have public libraries, and unless it’s a book you read weekly, there shouldn’t be a huge need to keep it. (That said, my husband and I do have books in our home that are not on loan from the library. But we’ve pared them wayyyy down and we continue to do so. It’s a work in progress.) Books collect dust and silverfish and those icky little pincher-bug thingies — and no one wants those in their house. Keep a few cool ones (books, not bugs), and get rid of the rest.

Simplify your home, simplify your phone, simplify your life. Use those gadgets and apps that are meant to simplify to do just that. And if you find they aren’t actually simplifying, TOSS THEM AND DON’T LOOK BACK. (“No Ragrets“)

As a wild side-note, as I was writing this post, I came across an article in The Atlantic titled “Why Americans Are Always Running Out of Time.” It’s right in line with what I’m saying, and it gives lots of fun research to back up the ideas (there we go with that logos). Derek Thompson writes, “In the 20th century, labor-saving household technology improved dramatically, but no labor appears to have been saved.” Well huh. Why is that? He writes that it involves our shift in what we want and what we think we need. He talks about how before the advent of automatic washers and dryers, “humans blithely languished in their own filth.” As in, humans used to be perfectly fine in their own filth and the filth of others.

And while I’m allll about personal hygiene, I have to wonder if we’re a little quick to throw that pair of pajama pants into the dirty clothes hamper after a single wear. (My sons LOVE to throw a pair of pants they wore for an hour — if you have kids, you know that this just happens some days — into that hamper when they aren’t at all dirty.) If you’re familiar with my Instagram stories, it’s turned into a kind of game to spot the laundry basket lurking in the shadows in all my pictures and videos. So much laundry always . . .

In writing all of this, I have one simple request of you (well, two, actually, because I’d ask that you go back and read that Atlantic article): be mindful of the stuff you use (and enjoy) and try to get rid of the rest. If you don’t, someone will have to. And that’s just rude to let that fall to someone else.

Let’s not let our lives be frittered away by detail (or anything else, for that matter).

Thanks for reading, friends. Now go support your local donut shop by getting a delicious apple fritter. My favorite is Donut Wheel in Cupertino, California — open 24 hours! Enjoy.

Attendance-Question Monday (and wisdom from a curmudgeon)

“They never had much, but they always had enough.” –Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove

Let me start by saying that if you haven’t read this book or seen the movie, put it on your to-do list. And even though I’m only 93 pages into the book, I’d already (with confidence) advise reading the book first. (Update: If you follow my blog, you’ll remember I was reading The Water Dancer last week. Finished it. It was great. Read my short review on Goodreads here.)

Do yourself a favor and read the book first — surprise. It has quite a bit of internal monologue that is hilarious and devastating that you just don’t get from watching the movie.

This particular quote comes when now-curmudgeony Ove is reflecting on his childhood and, specifically, money and material goods his parents had. They may not have had much, but they had
-food on the table.
-a roof over their heads.
-shoes on their feet and clothes on their backs.

I was drawn to the quote for its simplicity, its structure (look at the beauty of the antithesis of never and always), and its meaning. The idea that never having much and always having enough don’t have to be mutually exclusive? That’s gold.

What’s particularly troubling, though, is that many of us have much . . .

but we still don’t feel we have enough.

It’s dizzying thinking about how much stuff we have. And while I could write endlessly about our “stuff” problem (see one of my posts here . . . and another one here), what I’d like to tap into today is not about having enough. . .

but about being enough.

Today for attendance-question Monday, I asked my students what “the ideal age is.” I received a range of answers, from 4 to 99 with the mode answer being 25. Their reasoning ranged from being a kid with no responsibility and a play-all-day lifestyle to being old and retired and not having to do anything except go to church once a week with the wife. We enjoyed thinking about the question, and some of the students had some wacky and fun answers.

What troubled me, though, is that none of them answered with their current age. And I can’t fault them. I wouldn’t have as a stress-ball teenager, either.

I just had a birthday yesterday, and wow I am thankful to be the age that I am. I would never choose to be younger (I wouldn’t know what I know now, and I don’t like the idea of going backwards). And I wouldn’t presume to know that any age above mine is ideal. I told the students that when I was 25, I definitely thought, “THIS. This is it. This is the ideal age. I love it.” But then I turned 26, and … 30, and … 38, and every time I thought, “THIS. This is it!” I love how every year of my life brings with it new experiences, new knowledge, and new sentences that I read and write.

The students (and probably lots of humans) default to thinking that any age other than their own is better. This makes me sad. And it makes me wonder if they believe that they are enough.

And even though I am very happy in life, I most definitely have seasons of feeling like I’m not enough — like maybe another age might be better. This year, because I’m nursing a now 9-month-old, I come home from school every day instead of staying at school to pump. This has been great, but has resulted in my not eating lunch with my “school friends” in the break room every day. It’s also resulted in my missing weekly lunch meetings with a group of Young Life girls. I miss these humans. And as I go through the year, I notice little things here and there that they’re doing that I miss. I’ve strapped myself in, the lap bar locks, I lurch forward, and just like that I’m careening down and around on the roller coaster of . . .

insecurity. I feel like I’m missing out. I feel like my friends maybe aren’t my friends. And I feel like I’m not enough.

I know this season will come to an end, but I’m realizing more and more (the older I get), that there are certain things in life that are simply outside of my control. I have chosen to breastfeed my baby, and that means I don’t spend as much time with certain people. That is my choice. What’s outside of my control is how those people will respond. I have to actively refuse to let things outside of my control affect my happiness. I have to actively refuse to let things outside of my control affect my feelings of not being enough.

And even though this has been a difficult season in terms of friendships, it’s not to say that it’s been all bad. One friendship in particular has deepened, and I am incredibly thankful for that. At (now) 38 years old, I am feeling the best I’ve ever felt. I love life and feel blessed to live it.

It’s baffling (and funny) to think that at 25 I really thought I knew who I was and what I believed. I’ve had quite the seismic shift since then — not only with life circumstances (grad school, jobs, houses) but with people (losing my mom, having a baby, having another baby, losing my dad, having another baby). When my students gave their answers, I don’t think they were thinking about other humans in their lives. And other humans are so very important.

But even with the sad seasons in this life (death of parents or even death of certain friendships), there is still so much (read: enough) fulfillment in this life. Every year of my life, I learn so many things about myself, about my marriage, about my kids, about teaching, about my students, about sourdough bread, about healthier lifestyle choices, about God, about life. And it’s enough! In the best way, it’s enough.

Ironically what the students hate the most about life (school) is what I’ve come to believe is one of the best things about life (learning). Granted, my learning is not inside a classroom with a witch-for-a-teacher who scuttles around giving lots of assignments and quizzes and tests and projects and grades and memorization of poems. And after writing that sentence, I’m in no hurry to be back in school. But learning to be a better human? I pray I never stop. And while learning looks different on everyone, here are some ways I use it to make every year my ideal year:

  • Learn through reading books. (SURPRISE! I bet you never saw this one coming.) Read all sorts: literary fiction, fluff fiction, non fiction, religious texts, reputable news articles and Op-Eds. You’re learning writing style, vocabulary, content, and . . . empathy. It’s all good. And it’s a great little escape sometimes, too.
  • Learn to write for an audience. Though I may have a total of three people who read every single thing I write, it’s still been such a wonderful learning experience for me to be disciplined in my writing. I think it’s making me a better teacher and a better human.
  • Learn to eat real food. As the wise Michael Pollan says, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I learn by reading books about food and watching documentaries about food and trusting my gut. I learn more each year, and that’s fun. Where I’m at right now is trying to eat minimal amounts of animal products. We’ll see what I learn in another ten years.
  • Learn to sleep better. I listen to podcasts about it. I read about it. Then I sleep on it.
  • Learn to exercise outside on occasion and get some Vitamin D (from the actual sun).
  • Learn how to have meaningful discussions with people. One of my favorite times in my relationship with my husband is when we sit down to watch something together but pause it after a couple minutes to talk about some random thing and never end up un-pausing because we just keep talking for two hours and then it’s bed time. Whew! Having someone in my life that I really enjoy talking to is something I don’t take for granted.
  • Learn new things in the kitchen. It’s fun. And rewarding (most times).
  • Learn to let go of the things outside of your control (like pesky traffic lights, for one).
  • Learn that God created this beautiful earth for us to live our best lives. Believe that God made us to be enough.

Enough.

How to Achieve Immortality (it involves pie)

“Its meaning is in the doing.” –Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer

Oh, this book. It’s on another level. It’s strange, and . . . I like it. When the mayor says these words to our narrator, Hiram, it’s one of those moments that make us pause. We know something big is happening. I’m still working my way through the book (only on page 93 right now), and there are these little wisps of smoky magic throughout. I’m intrigued, and hopefully my 9-month-old will allow me a window of reading time more than three minutes at a time.*

(*Note: NOT a recommended reading strategy, but if it’s all you have, you take it. I hear people tell me — ad nauseam — that they simply don’t have any time to read. And as I look at them with an ever-so-slight eyebrow raise, I think to myself, “Wow, to not have five or ten minutes in a day. That’s something.” And I would wager that something is in fact not true. Turn your phone off. Try again. Goodbye.)

But aside from my sentiments on reading (and how if you’re a human you better be figuring out how to do it — hint: open book, look at words, turn pages), I love this quote because of its — you guessed it — simple truth.

Meaning is in the doing.

We’ve heard it before: don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk; actions speak louder than words; practice what you preach; etc. But what these familiar phrases lack is meaning. And that meaning element is good. Really good.

So what is the meaning of your life? Simple. Look at what you’re doing. I don’t care what you believe or what your Enneagram is or even what you say. What do you do?

Do you believe in God and/or the Bible and/or Jesus but find yourself gossiping with co-workers, holding onto grudges, dwelling on and perpetuating negativity?

Do you look for the cutesy-tootsie Enneagram infographics on Instagram and immediately post to stories OMG? It’s real life if it’s on your stories. We all know that.

Do you say you want your kids to get the best education when they never see you reading (but instead see you as a screen-zombie to your phone)?

Do you want a happy life but go to bed each night exhausted and drained, wondering when the next weekend/break/hiatus/sabbatical will be?

I’m a teacher, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of living for the weekend (and the random government days off and Thanksgiving break — ON IT!! — and Christmas break and spring break and summer break). But, hello — what am I doing each weekday to be happy?

Sometimes I like to sit down and think about what I do in a day. I suggest you do the same. So let me walk through a typical “school day”:

  1. Wake up a little earlier than I need so that I can enjoy a quiet few minutes with my cup of coffee and a book.
  2. Do all the necessary personal preparations for school. I have a simple wardrobe, so dressing never takes a long time. I don’t wear much makeup or do much of anything with my hair, so, again, less time. I think the key here is not worrying too much about how I look.
  3. I ride my bike the almost-mile to school. As I ride down my street, I often see the beautiful sunrise and thank God for the morning greeting. I see a couple of folks fairly regularly that I wave to and say “Good morning!” Rick is my regular walker, and we’ve actually stopped to meet each other since we see each other nearly every morning. When it’s cold (in the 40’s — I don’t bike under 40 degrees fahrenheit; I have standards, people), my regulars and I exchange the knowing nod of it’s cold and WE OUT HERE.
  4. I get to school with plenty of time to spare so I never feel rushed in the mornings.
  5. I enjoy chatting with my homeroom students. They’re ninth graders and crazy. And I love them . . . almost all the time.
  6. I write my curriculum based on what I love. So classes are never dull. (Does it get tedious doing the same lesson again and again in a day? Sure, but the students are so different that even with the same lesson, the variation still prevails.)
  7. I enjoy my lunch with adults. This is a time I get away from the students. Some teachers let students eat in their rooms, but that just isn’t for me. I need a balance of teenagers and adults in my day, and chatting with adults at lunch is a needed respite. (This year has been a little different because I actually bike home every day for lunch to nurse my baby. But I always get to chat with my husband, and he is — I would say, for the most part — an adult, so it counts.)
  8. I try not to stay late at school. I’ve found that if I’m absolutely overwhelmed with papers to grade or lessons to write or fill-in-the-blank to do, I’m actually not being efficient at my job. Even if you’re not a teacher, see if this applies to you. Work smarter, not harder. (Hey, just because you’re that person who stays super late every day at whatever job you’re at doesn’t mean that you’re actually a good employee. WE HAVE GOT TO STOP THE MADNESS OF EXALTING THE RULE-FOLLOWING ROBOT-OVERWORKER.)
  9. I ride my bike home, sometimes in the rain, and enjoy noticing weird and interesting things on the path. Like a huge spider in a huge spider web that I have to swerve to avoid smashing my face into. Sometimes students or parents or coworkers give a little honk and wave as they drive by. It’s nice.
  10. I enjoy my evening with my family. We try not to make plans so that our weeknights are open to our every whim. Whims normally include trips to Trader Joe’s, maybe a dinner out at Moe’s on kids night, the library, or — the craziest whim — staying home. The husband has a fire going in the fireplace when the temps get way, way down into the fifties here in sunny Florida.

No crazy tips on how to be happy except to say that my life isn’t crazy. I do my best at living life, and that includes spending the most time doing what I love and being with people I love. Being a mom and wife and teacher? Love that about my life. Reading lots of books and writing (on a mostly-weekly basis)? Also love that.

So my last blog post was about my grandmother’s lemon cream pie. Since today’s blog post is all about doing, I thought I’d update you on the pie progress.

PIE PROGRESS UPDATE: I made the pie. I made the pie on Wednesday night, chilled it overnight, and brought it to our friend’s Thanksgiving celebration on Thursday. I thought that I hadn’t whipped the cream long enough for it to set properly and was absolutely terrified that it would turn into a gloppy pudding mess as soon as it was cut into. You know, when you lift out the slice, and the rest of the pie just sort of oozes into the open space and globs it right up? Yeah, that’s what I imagined. So I downplayed my pie to everyone at the feast, and when it came time to cut, I prayed “DEAR JESUS DO YOUR WORK HERE IN THIS PIE.” As I ever so carefully lifted the slice out, the whipped topping just held.

AND IT WAS MAGNIFICENT.

In fact, when I truly beheld its magnificence (in my mouth), I was transported back to my grandmother’s table (with all her fine china and crystal because, you know, she fancy) in Palo Alto, California. And I said a little prayer of thanks, and scarfed that pie down.

The point is, I wrote about the pie. I found the pie recipe. I read the pie recipe. I thought about the pie. But it wasn’t until I actually made the pie that meaning glinted through (in the form of a crisp, buttery crust, a tart lemon cream, and a light and fluffy whipped cream with little shreds of lemon zest on top). It was nice to think about the pie and read the recipe and reminisce about my grandmother. But it was joy making the pie and sheer decadence eating it.

I also brought some of my homemade sourdough bread to the feast, in the forms of a fougasse and four baguettes. Again, I like to talk about bread. And I like to write about bread. But it’s the doing that brings the true satisfaction. And I think satisfaction goes hand in hand with meaning. Like my read-more-books-talks with adults and the I-simply-have-no-time syndrome, people love to talk to me about bread and how they’re “going to try to start making bread.” But then, inevitably, they catch themselves and admit that they “simply have no time.”

Really, could we all probably come up with *all the things* that *take up all the time* and actually not accomplish much in life? YEP. So figure out what it is you want to do in life and do it. Or figure out what you want your kids seeing you doing and do it. Case in point: There’s a baby on my back. Right now. As I write. That baby is just soaking in the writing vibes. Now in fairness, he is asleep in a baby carrier on my back. And that is not normally how I write. But my husband is *doing* a bonfire and campout tonight with first-born and second-born. (They’re in the backyard in a tent. Bless my husband’s soul.) So I’m on baby duty 100% tonight.

When I try to think about what I want to do in life, I try to think about what I’ll remember (for good reasons or at least some hearty laughs) later in life — or what my husband or kids or students will remember later in life. Bonus: Doing things that people will remember will create your legacy. And you will achieve immortality as your deeds will live on forever after you pass. Immortality? Level up.

Will this lemon-pie-making become a probably-yearly tradition? Yes. And I think my kids will remember the tart-sweet of those bites and think of me. Same with my weekly bread (minus the tart-sweet).

Will my writing live on after I’m gone? Yes. And maybe my kids will get a kick out of reading what their silly little super cool mom had to say about life and love and sentences.

So what this all loops back around to is . . .

IMMORTALITY.

Really, though, it is. Do things. Do things that you (and partners and kids and students and people) will remember. And as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said (but because he has achieved immortality through his words, he still says — present tense), “Let us, then, be up and doing / with a heart for any fate.” If you have time, read the entire poem here. It is life-changing. But it might take a minute.

I wonder what you’ll do.

Burn All of the Things! (or at least donate them)

“Things! Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful fire! More room in your heart for love, for the trees! For the birds who own nothing — the reason they can fly.” –“Storage,” Mary Oliver–

Mary Oliver! Such truth, such wisdom! At once humble and confident, Oliver seems able to catch a ray of light and express it through words. (I love writing. I do. But I STRUGGLE with that poetic element of conveying physical beauty. Mad respect to those writers who possess this gift. Mary Oliver is definitely one of them. Check out this other post I wrote about her and her wisdom.)

So in this particular excerpt, Oliver doesn’t mince words (just one of the beautiful aspects of poetry — words are very deliberately chosen and ordered, like jewels lined up and patterned). She starts (simply) with the one-word exclamation, “Things!”

I wonder what that means to all the readers out there. I wonder what that means to you. Do we read that as if she’s exasperated? Hopeless? Angry? Excited? Surprised? Take a moment and experience the poem for yourself, from beginning to end. Pause for just a moment after the exclamation, assess your own emotion, and continue:

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room

for. What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared 

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything. 

I felt like the little donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful 

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own 

nothing — the reason they can fly.

A wise student once said that good poetry changes you — that you’re not the same person at the end of a poem as you were at the beginning. Wow. (Sometimes I have these moments as a teacher when I stand in sheer amazement that I get to do what I do. The wisdom that radiates from the beautiful humans that are my students floors me.)

All that to say, I came out of that Oliver poem changed. When I got to “Things,” I can only describe my emotion as happy resignation. Things — who needs ’em? What a great reminder that this beautiful life we live with the beautiful friends and family we’re so fortunate to share it with is more important than things. Things encroach. Things overflow. Things make babies. And before we know it

things

displace.

When our lives start turning into a photo feed of (heavily filtered) stuff . . .

Thing,

thing,

thing, thing,

thing.

THING!

Thing,

thing.

Thing!

Thing.

Where are we? Where are we really?

I got rid of my “dustbuster” vacuum today. It hasn’t worked well in awhile, and I have an upright vacuum that gets the job done. (I also would probably shed real tears if Mary Oliver advised me to toss my Dyson Small Ball Multi Upright Vacuum Cleaner I Love It So Much into a bonfire.) There was no good reason to keep a sub-par dustbuster in my house, especially when it was sitting underneath the piano getting dusty and collecting dog-fur tufts.

Yesterday, I gave away three reusable bags. (Let me tell you, those make babies!)

And my husband and I make it a point to read the books we have and then give them away. We consider the public library our “storage unit” for our books. What a concept! Read more about the wonder that is the public library here.

It feels good to purge things and make a beautiful fire (or just drop them off at Salvation Army or Goodwill). And remember, when we get rid of things, we open up room in our heart for love — and in my case today, after lugging a couple of bags to the Goodwill drop-off location, I opened up room in the back of my car. I suppose the case could be made that love might happen in the back of one’s car. There are still a couple of bags back there that I need to drop off at Round Robin consignment, so maybe not quite enough room for love . . . yet.

As I write this post, sitting at a desk that is quite full of odds and ends, I know that getting rid of things is never ending. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t try. Have some spots in your house that you keep nice and clutter free — spots that spark joy (check out this spark joy podcast, based on the book The Life-Changing Art of Tidying Up).

But tangible things(!) are only part of the problem. Our homes and cars and classrooms and cubicles and desks and backpacks and lockers get cluttered with who-knows-what, but our minds get cluttered with things, too. I’m a firm believer that decluttering our physical lives helps declutter our mental lives.

And when we’re decluttered humans, we’re better humans. (If you’re a regular reader — thank you!! — you know that being a better human is important to me. I hope it is for you, too.) I think Oliver believes that being better humans means we’re more open — whether it’s our home for unannounced guests or our hearts for love (or the backs of our cars . . . ).

So how can we declutter?

The tangible things: Well I’d start with a good ol’ fashioned purge of your stuff. Donate it. Give it to a friend. (Burn it!) Try not to get too emotionally attached to things. (They don’t love you back.)

The intangible things: Take some things off your schedule (and therefore off your mind). Try for fewer activities. Allow your kids to have open schedules that include boredom from time to time. Allow yourself some boredom from time to time. Put the phone in another room (or — gasp — don’t bring it with you on your errands). When you’re back with your phone, reassess what you actually need (I use that term loosely) notifications for. Maybe notifications for phone calls and texts only.

And then: Go outside. Play piano. Sing. Write. Read. Talk to your spouse. Talk to a friend (not Siri; not Alexa).

I think Mary Oliver would advise sitting under a tree and listening to the birds. (Think about the last time you did that; I can’t remember the last time I did that.)

We shouldn’t let a day go by without getting into nature. Writing this, I’m hoping to finish soon and go sit on my screened-in porch and listen to the cicadas and frogs harmonizing in my backyard. This is a way I can get into nature — and not get mosquito bites. (Mosquitoes: not an element of nature I want to “get into.”)

Mary Oliver’s advice is simple: get rid of the things in our lives that we really don’t care about. We won’t miss them, and getting rid of them will release a burden. We’ll free up our homes and hearts for love. Remember the birds who own nothing? It’s the reason they can fly.

So let’s get rid of our things.

Let’s get rid of our things (in our daily planners).

Let’s get rid of our things (that notify and beep and buzz).

Let’s get rid of our things (that worry, that stress, that cause us to lose sleep).

Let’s get rid of our things,

and fly.

Sourdough, Love, and Life (And an Oxford Comma, of Course)

“Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.” –Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven

So I’m making bread today. And I say “making,” not “baking,” because the actual baking of the bread will happen tomorrow morning. Let’s just say that making bread is a process — for me, a process that normally takes around 24 hours. But about six years ago when I popped that first loaf out of the oven, I was hooked. I’ve been baking sourdough bread just about every weekend since.

And I confess: I really wanted to write about bread today. So I “cheated” and found this quote on Goodreads. I haven’t read the book (yet!!), but it is definitely on my “to-read” list. (Quick update: I FINALLY finished Dance of Thieves for those of you who remember the promise I made on this post.)

Taking a quick look at the quote itself, the Literary Prude English Teachers of America (LPETA, for those of you who don’t remember) would be simply appalled. It’s clearly a run-on. “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone” –> independent clause. “it has to be made, like bread” –> independent clause. What connects the two? JUST a comma? THE HORROR. Any self-respecting, English-speaking human knows that a comma by itself cannot connect two independent clauses. AND THAT’S NOT EVEN WHERE THE SENTENCE ENDS! Le Guin then goes ahead with a semicolon (LPETA, deep breaths here), and what follows is a fragment. (OK, I’m — proudly — not a part of the LPETA, but this punctuation makes even my English-teacher blood pressure go up just a bit.)

So here’s the deal: Look up Le Guin, and you’ll see that she’s clearly a very intelligent, very prolific author. Her books have extremely high reviews, and she has the kind of readership who reads her books more than once.

Well.

I will say it’s yet another reminder to me as an English teacher to SETTLE DOWN when it comes to following all grammar and punctuation rules ever in existence (more about being a rule-following robot here). And if you’ve ever experienced my correcting your grammar (i.e., if you’ve ever said “I just want to lay down . . .” *shudder*), here we go . . . I’m sorry. But I will say this: in a weird way, if I correct you, it’s like a compliment. It means that I consider you a true friend — one who can laugh or shrug it off and continue putting up with me.

But back to the delicious bread. As I mentioned, it’s quite the long process. I use what’s called sourdough starter (fermented flour and water) as the leavening agent (i.e., what makes the bread RISE). Because I don’t use commercial yeast, the entire process takes longer. My basic timeline typically consists of the following:

  • In the morning, take my starter out of the fridge and “feed” it equal weights of flour and water.
  • When the starter has fermented and bubbled and doubled in size (around midday for me in the heat of a Florida summer in a house that is always quite warm because I married a man who likes to save money and the thermostat is one way he does that), I start putting bread ingredients together: water, starter, white flour, whole wheat flour (lately I’ve been on a spelt kick; 10/10 recommend), salt, and perhaps some seeds or other whole grains if I’m feeling particularly clever.
  • Mix all that together and then let it sit for around 6 hours, stretching it about every hour.
  • So at around 7 pm, let’s say, I dump out the dough onto the counter and form it into balls. Balls on my kitchen counter. It’s a treat. I let the balls sit for about a half an hour.
  • Then I shape the balls according to the proofing container I’ll be using.
  • I put the shaped dough into the proofing basket and the loaf pans, and I let that sit for about another hour.
  • Then I stick the basket and the pans into the fridge to slowly continue proofing until the morning.
  • The next morning, I bake!

Repeat every weekend. Whew! I’ll tell you, it’s certainly not difficult, but there is also definitely a learning curve. I’ve been baking for years now, and I still don’t get super consistent loaves from week to week. I can understand that for some of us, the lack of consistency (especially when doing something we’ve done hundreds of times before) would drive us mad. (Quick pause here: I did the math, and baking an average of three loaves every week for 6 years adds up to 936 loaves. What a great number, by the way — all numbers divisible by 3.)

UPDATE: As I am working on this blog post, my dough is in the I’m-stretching-every-hour stage, and WOW is the dough wet! I keep looking back at the recipe, making sure I weighed everything out correctly — and I did. SO WHO KNOWS.

But that’s life, isn’t it. If we think about it, what we have the most experience doing is living life. And life is most definitely inconsistent. Sometimes plans turn out with wonderful (maybe even delicious) results. I like to think of those times like my loaves that come out with a nice rise, open crumb, and crisp crust. Sometimes plans turn out with awful results. Those times would be my loaves that come out looking like glorified pancakes instead of artisan sourdough.

But here’s the delicious part of it all: even when my loaves come out flat, the bread always tastes good. I have to remind myself of that when I start getting uppity about how my loaves look. (Speaking of which, I am a wee bit nervous today because I do plan on bringing a loaf to school tomorrow to share with the English department. So as I am in the process of making my 937th loaf of bread, I’m nervous. And actually, I think that’s OK.)

And apart from the bread always tasting good, I’m constantly learning and tweaking (tweaking, not twerking). So it’s a win-win for me.

It’s how I try to live my life.

It’s how I try to love.

Like Le Guin says, love has to be made and remade and made new. It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it kind of deal. I don’t dump my ingredients into a bread machine to have perfect loaves pop out. I take my time with the dough. I use my hands. I come back to it again and again. I let it rest. I help shape it. And at the end of it all, it’s still going to do what it wants.

So whether you’re baking bread, loving another human, or living life, there’s a lesson here. Do expect a process. Don’t expect consistent results. Do expect a learning curve. Don’t expect to become an expert. Do try your best anyway.

And my hope for you today and always is that even if your bread doesn’t quite come out the way you’d hoped or planned, it still tastes good.

Good bread, good love, and good life to you. (And now I’m up again to stretch my dough.)

Sourdough Bread Resources:

  • Bread Baking for Beginners, by Bonnie Ohara: This one is best for beginners who are OK with starting the learning process by using commercial yeast. The book is in order of easiest to most difficult breads, and it has great step-by-step instructions that anyone can understand. I don’t own this one, but I borrowed it from the library and read it cover to cover like a novel. I ate it up!
  • Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, by Emilie Raffa: This is good for intermediate level to advanced bread-bakers. Every recipe in the book uses sourdough starter, so you’ll want to make some or get your hands on some. I own this book, and I’ve been using it as of late. I love it.
  • Tartine Book No. 3, by Chad Robertson: This one is for the bread foodie, the broodie. I’d recommend it for the more advanced bread baker. I read this one like a novel and felt a genuine understanding and love for sourdough after reading it. It has lots of background information on the history of sourdough along with interesting tid-bits about different types of whole wheat flours. The recipes are more difficult mostly because they call for a higher ratio of wheat flour. I felt kind of snobby reading this one. Which was kind of fun for a crisp minute. I own this one and find myself coming back to it every now and again.
  • Me! I always have sourdough starter to share, and it makes my heart happy when someone actually wants to give sourdough bread baking a try.

Stranger Things, Oxen, and Love

“What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.” –Walt Whitman–

I’ve talked a lot about the importance of reading on my blog. In fact, I’ve devoted entire posts (here and here) to the importance of picking up a book and reading it. So when I came across this Whitman quote, I thought it would be a good one for me to tackle — if nothing else, to challenge my own thinking.

And even though I have (very) strong feelings about reading (lots and lots of) books, Whitman’s sentiment immediately resonates with me.

Because Whitman is talking about being human. He acknowledges that there is something elusive about being human that cannot be captured in words. We can try to capture the human (and we definitely do try), but I firmly believe that there is no way to accurately depict all of the nuances and complexities that make us human.

So in this game of “Capture the Human,” we’re losers.

There does not exist a book or even a poem that can get to the essence of expression in our eyes.

Cut to the scene from Stranger Things 3 when Erica is crawling through the air ducts with her flashlight headgear and My Little Pony backpack to find the secret Russian elevator.

(Spoiler: Erica does indeed find the secret Russian elevator.)

But I don’t think we’re quite as competent as Erica when it comes to crawling through the duct-work of human emotion.

Oddly, Whitman expresses a profound truth here using “print.” But he’s reminding us that while words help in this life, they are not the answer. And while Erica does actually find the elevator, she and her buddies realize that the elevator leads to even more questions.

Well isn’t that true of life and human emotion. We get to a point where we think we’ve figured out [insert human emotion here] only to realize that it’s simply a secret Russian elevator that leads us somewhere else where there are even more questions to be answered and even more mysteries to be solved.

Are you starting to feel the futility here?

Or are you starting to feel the excitement of the mystery?

Even though we probably feel the former sometimes, hopefully most times we feel the latter. Life is ultimately a mystery. We can plan and write and read and discover and think and discuss and work and play. But at the end of the day, Robert Burns states the tough truth in his poem “To a Mouse”:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

          Gang aft agley,

An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,

          For promis’d joy!

In other words, even the best plans can go awry and lead to grief and pain.

Well that sucks. But imagine how predictable life would be if we could predict what life would be.

Let’s explore the “more” Whitman references. What is the “more” expressed in our eyes? What is the “more” that cannot be explained in words? Now if you find Whitman’s sentence in context (find his excerpt from Leaves of Grass here), you’ll see that he’s actually talking about an ox’s eyes. I don’t know about your interest in oxen, but I actually have very little. Close to none, actually. Well, maybe none at all. But I think Whitman is certainly not limiting his commentary to oxen. The idea of eyes expressing more than print goes beyond oxen.

And this is where I take the leap from oxen . . .

to love.

Tomorrow marks 15 years being married to my husband. How I wish I could put into words the way I feel towards him. (I’ve tried writing love poetry and failed. MISERABLY.) As for capturing emotion in words, he’s much better. While we were still dating, we had to spend one (LONG) summer away from each other. Both working at summer camps — me: in the Redwoods of California, him: in the lakes and trails of Wisconsin — we stayed busy and happy, but we each experienced an emptiness that only the other could fill. We called when we could (not often). We wrote letters. I didn’t write as often as I would have liked. But my husband? He wrote me a letter every single day. Never was there a day at camp that I did not receive mail. I hung on to his words. They were my lifeline — keeping me safely tethered to my love.

But when camp ended and everything was packed up and we headed back to college for our junior year and I saw him . . .

No words could express the way I felt looking into his eyes. Somehow in those few seconds of looking into his eyes there was more than all the words in all the letters.

So maybe Whitman is talking about oxen. But the beauty of literature is that when we read it, we bring with us our life experiences, our opinions, our biases, and our needs. Who’s to say farmers don’t resonate with there being “more than all the print” in the ox’s eyes? And while I don’t necessarily think of my husband as an ox, when I read Whitman’s words, they are about emotion. And the most mysterious of all human emotions in my mind is love.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to write a love poem to my husband (I don’t have the audacity to predict), but for now, a Pablo Neruda poem will suffice (to an extent, that is):

Of everything I have seen, 

it’s you I want to go on seeing: 

of everything I’ve touched, 

it’s your flesh I want to go on touching. 

I love your orange laughter. 

I am moved by the sight of you sleeping. 

What am I to do, love, loved one? 

I don’t know how others love 

or how people loved in the past. 

I live, watching you, loving you. 

Being in love is my nature.

Life, love, and all human emotion — there is a mystery here that is unsolvable. And while we gobble up all the self-help books, frantically search for the algorithm of love, and read poetry for all the rest, there will always be more. (Notice that there is no link for that one.)

And I’m so glad. I’ve had 15 years of love. 15 years of growing and changing. 15 years of learning. 15 years of living life with my favorite human. I feel like I know the guy pretty well. But the fact that there’s more?

What an incredible gift.

So maybe (for once) put the book down, and look someone you care about in the eyes. Linger. Allow for vulnerability. Allow for love.

To my husband: I adore you. Words can’t express it.

But I’ll keep trying anyway. (And thank you for always reading what I have to say — even if you might be the only one.)

I look forward to there always being more with you.

Happy anniversary, my love.