Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Berries

This past weekend was an excellent one. Not only did I take Friday off so that we could all head to the coast together, I made strawberry ice cream to take along. This time of year, Oregon is inundated with delicious local strawberries. They taste so much better than those giant pinkish lumps from California, but they don't last nearly as long. That means you can frequently find slightly mushy Oregon strawberries on sale in the grocery store this time of year. Not bad mind you, but simply a little too soft for eating our of hand. Strawberry ice cream sounded like a delicious way to use them up (they get mushed anyway).

I chose a recipe that didn't involve cooking or eggs, but that could still be creamy and wonderful. Basically, it's 2 cups cream, 2 cups milk, 1 cup sugar, 2 cups strawberries, plus a pinch of salt and splash of vanilla. The recipe said to mash the strawberries before mixing it up, but I mixed first and then mashed them into the cream/milk with a potato masher. The result? The dairy turned a lovely pink and there were plenty of chunks of berry to enjoy. This made enough for two batches in our little ice cream maker.

Another great way to use up slightly soft berries and other ripe fruit is in a coconut fruit salad. This is a recipe of my own invention and I made some this weekend for a dinner party (it was too hot to cook anything, so it was a cold spread with meats, cheeses, and salads). Chop up a bunch of nice, ripe fruit into a huge bowl. My big bowl must hold at least 12 cups of chopped fruit... maybe more. You can also add chopped nuts, although I don't as my husband doesn't like them. Then sprinkle with a bit of either cinnamon or nutmeg, add a can of coconut milk, and mix carefully. The coconut holds everything together without adding dairy or mayo. This stuff lasts a week in the fridge and just gets juicier and better. It also won't go bad as quick at a summer potluck or picnic. You could also add coconut shreds or dried fruit (like raisins) to vary the texture, but all fresh fruit works great as is.

In addition to beach combing and fruit cutting, I also got out the sewing supplies for some mending and cutting. In particular, I cut woven fabric for a new set of dish towels and a bunch of cotton for bias binding for them. More on that (and pictures!) when I get them done.

Tonight my husband is cooking tilapia for dinner, which makes me very happy.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

In not so many words...

I haven't been posting as much as I wanted to. Moving really threw off my personal arts and crafts movement. Much of my stuff remained packed while we gave priority to pointless stuff like plates and towels (how is that fair, I ask you?). Then I finally got my office set of only to be invaded by all the stuff from my husband's studio. But I don't mind that as much since it's for a wonderful reason -- a dear friend is staying with us for a while. Still, there has been some creative stuff that I've simply neglected to write about. For example:

* We went to our local farmers market for produce, eggs, and happy (at least before they were slaughtered) chickens. We even took the bus and remembered our canvas bags.

* I made homemade strawberry shortcake, homemade custard, and homemade ice cream (not, you know, all on the same day).

* I unpacked and have been working on my third scherenschnitt.

Tomorrow we are making a pilgrimage to the ocean. I've also been itching to do some sewing and may try to fit that in this weekend as well.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Bit of Baking

This weekend I managed a bit of baking. Baking is one of those things I enjoy because I'm not required to do it all the time. In fact since the move I haven't had a chance to bake anything. But this weekend I decided on a crustless apple crumble cheater's pie from The Pie and Pastry Bible -- the source of all my pie recipes. I started with four huge granny smith apples, which I sliced to 1/2 inch thickness just as the recipe specified. I should have known this was a mistake. I normally slice thinner and was kind of surprised at how thick these slices came out.

The result is that the pie ended up a bit underdone, with the apples too crunchy and the liquid not caramelized enough. Still it was edible and we definitely ate it. I wasn't responsible for taking the pie out of the oven because I was with my little girl at the library (getting her first library card), so I can't take all the blame. Next time I will either slice thinner or bake longer.

Ah, who'm I kidding? Next time I'll make a real, no cheating pie with a double crust. The crust is the best part of a pie and I make a great all-butter crust.

This weekend was also our first trip to the local farmer's market. Amazing. It's so wonderful to live in a place that has lots of local agriculture. More sustainable too. I'm used to New Mexico and Colorado, areas where local growing is limited. New Mexico, in particular, is suffering from a major long-term drought that's making even modern living seem unsustainable. Colorado has plenty of beef, but the primarily agricultural area is West of the Rockies.

We got local honey and kale to go with our hens for dinner, but made a mental list of all kinds of stuff we want for next week (wonderful apples and strawberries, lovely cauliflower, free-range chicken, local goat cheese).

My latest scherenschnitt is bugging the hell out of me. It's just small and annoying and tedious. I'm not feeling the love and am trying to decide whether to push through or put it aside and start something else.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Filling the well part 2...

In my last post, I asked how we can take ourselves out of a bad cycle where you can't refill your various wells (I guess you could call this a personal drought)...

This question is a challenge. After all, if you're already in a situation where it's a constant race to just to stay in place, it's hard to even picture doing anything differently. But there are some steps you can take to break out of a nasty vicious cycle.

The very first thing you can do is create a little quiet space for yourself. Odds are when you're in that state your mind is racing and filled with worry and stress. It's going to be very difficult to start the process of change without some space to work in. Just a tiny bit of quiet can be the first little wedge into this seemingly insurmountable wall. That's because filling the well requires effort and energy and a little space can help you find that.

That can mean taking your lunch break outside or turning off the TV at night for half an hour before bed or getting up a bit earlier to enjoy the morning quiet. Just making a little calm patch in the noise to think. Meditation is all well and good, but this doesn't necessarily have to be that. You don't have to think of nothing or clear your mind or have a mantra. It might even be a good thing to take a few calm moments to think clearly about your situation. Now, resist the temptation to spend that calm time thinking about all the rotten, scary, stressful stuff going on. Instead, just try picturing living your life in a different way -- picture an alternate reality.

Don't worry about figuring out how to get to that reality now. You don't have to know that yet. But making changes in your life is a form of magic, and you can't make the magic happen if you can't picture what you want. Try visualizing a world where you feel good, where the bills are paid, where you enjoy your job. Imagine the details. Picture sights (your new cozy safe apartment), sounds (your breath without wheezing while you go for a walk), smells (dinner on the stove, a product of your full pantry).

The key is to be realistic. You could spend your time imagining that you're model gorgeous, that you inherited a billion dollars, that you never married that jerk... but those things aren't realistic. It's just fantasy and dreaming and we can't extract improvement and action from that. What you have to do is visualize you in a new life that's based on your actual situation. You aren't going to be able to travel back in time and say "I don't" instead of "I do." However you can picture a life where you aren't stuck financially, relying on infrequent support checks without money for a good lawyer. You can't make yourself taller or blonder, but you can make yourself healthier, better read, more educated, more articulate. You may not have rich elderly relatives who you could start visiting regularly, but you can have a more stable financial situation.

As you start picturing this new life, you'll find that some things seem to fit better than others. The color of the paint and carpet in your future alternate house fade to unimportance, but the fact that you have a garden and can walk the streets safely become more and more prominent. This is your subconscious telling you what's really important for you and what's peripheral.

Having this possible alternate reality in mind is a critical first step to making changes. Because even if it never manifests in the exact way you visualize, believing in the reality of change is critical to making that change happen.

The next step is to start changing your mindset all the rest of the time. Not that you have to have your head in the clouds, visualizing all the time. You still have to deal with your current situation and we know how much attention that can take. But it's HOW you deal that's critical. It's the KIND of attention that matters.

For example, don't spend a bunch of pointless time blaming yourself for the way your life is. It's easy to kick yourself over past bad choices, but all it does is add to the stress and fatigue you're dealing with now. Taking responsibility is important, but endlessly kicking yourself about it is useless. It's just not productive. And don't spend a bunch of pointless time blaming other people either. It's equally nonproductive to point that blame outside yourself -- even if part of it belongs there.

There are many ways that the deck can be stacked against people because of gender or race or economic circumstances. Society also has its vicious cycles and blaming the victim and isolating people are two of the nastiest. But blaming others just uses your limited reserves to generate useless anger and gives you a feeling of futility. The time to point the finger and call people or society out is after you've broken out of your cycle. When you have reserves, using them to help others or point out injustice is of the highest calling. But you can't do that when you yourself are on the brink.

As you focus on your daily challenges, use your new visualized future to help you gain perspective. Your job sucks, but it isn't forever. You feel lonely, but can't you think of one person who cares? You feel horribly out of shape, but that just gives you more room to improve. Change is possible. You probably already believe that change for the worse is possible because you've experienced it. But change for the better is possible as well. And what you do now can make the difference between the two.

Start considering which wells you can begin to fill now. If your financial well is dry, you're going to need some extra income to change that. Money won't just materialize without some effort on your part. But you can start filling your emotional, physical, and mental wells right now. Just the tiniest steps can grow into large changes.

Emotional:

* Talk to a supportive friend or family member (emphasis on supportive) or if you don't have one, try to make one. We are judged by the quality of our friends... not because the world is full of judgmental people, but because we become like those we surround ourselves with. If you feel short on those kinds of people, put yourself in situations where you might meet them.

* Connect with people you see every day. These don't have to be your future best friends to bring something good to your life. Do a little something nice for someone. Bring cookies to work and say hi to the neighbors. Ask the postman's name. This isn't about major connections the way the previous item is... it's about the small connections. The little exchanges that help you feel like you are a part of the world.

* Write all your negative thoughts out on a paper. Now for each horrible, defeating thing you wrote, write the exact opposite on a different piece of paper... twice. No really. I mean it. I'll wait while you get a pen. It's surprising how easy it is to write something bad ("I'm just a pathetic excuse for a human being") and how hard it is to write something good ("I'm a valuable person with something good to give to the world"). Burn the first paper and frame the second.

* Feed your spirit with joyful and uplifting food. I like dark comedy and drama and cynical nihilistic commentary on our society in literature and film. And I like mindless eye candy type shows that are effectively car wrecks on TV. But now is not the time for emotional junk food. We're a cynical society. Honest positive emotion seems kind of pathetic and embarrassing. We're not supposed to be uplifted, filled with joy, moved by wonder. We're not supposed to cry when we read books or watch movies. We're not supposed to laugh unless it's at the misfortune of others. I'm giving you express permission to those things we're not supposed to do.

Physical:

* Get up. Get out. Take a walk. Even a short one. Breathe some air. Feel some weather. Get some sun or rain or snow on your face. Yeah, hug that tree already. Or sit with your back to it and look up in its branches. Find a private place and run a little bit if you can. I don't mean RUN(tm) like some adult exercise program. Run like a kid, ungainly, ugly, just for fun.

* Feed your body with good food. Avoid extremism and diets. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Michael Pollan was kind enough to encapsulate the most important bit of his book In Defense of Food so that you can start right away without having to read it. Eat slow. Chew your food. Take time for your meal.

* Get some rest. While depressed people can sleep waaaay too much, the average American is chronically sleep deprived. What's ironic is that as busy as we feel we are, most of us spend a pointless period of time before we go to sleep watching TV or reading or surfing (yeah, me too). Not that a little evening relaxation will kill us, but hey, if you aren't getting enough sleep try turning off the electronics and the lights and just go to sleep already.

* Make a small change in your environment just for the sake of beauty, comfort, aesthetics, and pleasure. Clean off your desk / counter / table or take out the trash and scrub the sink. Make a nature altar on a window sill. Light some candles. Arrange some flowers in a vase. Cover your old chair with a nice throw. Toss out that ugly picture that reminds you of your ex. When our lives are out of control, everything can seem overwhelming. You can't do everything... so you do nothing. Try a different approach and just to a little something.

Mental:

* Learn something new. Don't make this more complex than it needs to be. Go to the library and find a book or two. See if there's a weekend class. Find someone who knows how and ask some questions. The goal isn't productivity or money or status or power. Enjoy learning just for the sake of learning. Just because it's fun.

* Avoid the news. Seriously. It's not doing anyone any good. If you don't have friends or family to tell you when stuff happens, scan the headlines on a site like BBCs world news and through the glass of the newspaper dispenser. Check the weather on wunderground.com or weather.com. Realize that if war broke out or a flood was coming, you will no doubt hear about it.

* Exercise your gray matter with puzzles and games. Cross-words, sudoku, trivia. Cross-word puzzles have been proven to stave off Alzheimer's later in life. So give your brain a bit of a workout.

* Make a new habit. There's been an article going around the blog circuit about making new habits instead of changing old ones. I'd written about habits before and complete agree. Instead of trying to change some bad habit, make a new good one instead. Or make a new habit that's neither good or bad, just to stretch your brain. Change the order of your morning routine. Write with your non-dominate hand for a while. Take a different route to work or the store. Your brain will be busy forging new connections that you can then use to change your life.

Record any ideas that come to you. As you start filling yourself back up, even just a little and as you keep picturing how your life could be, eventually you'll get some idea of a step you could take. Something you could try to change things for the better. Writing your resume and posting it. Or keeping a loose change jar to help keep track of your pennies. Or trying whole fruit yogurt shakes for breakfast. Take a look at these ideas objectively (it is a scam or get rich/thin/healthy fast scheme? or it is an idea generated by your subconscious to really help you?). If the latter, give it a try. This is how we make change in our lives, one tiny little step at a time.

Finally, acknowledge that there is work involved -- sometimes a lot of work. If you have a long history of cycles of poverty and irresponsible spending, you're going to have to work to break out of it. Make more, spend less, create new habits. If you've been eating badly for a long time, it's going to take work to learn to enjoy natural flavors, unadulterated with salt and fat, and cook for yourself. If you are stuck because of past issues, it takes a whole lot of work to push through your old fears in order to do the things you know you need to do.

This last point is a challenge to embrace. When you're in a vicious cycle, it already seems like your life is much harder and more work than most people's. Someone with a reserve of money, time, health, and emotional well-being is better able to weather life's rough patches and has the tools and skills to even avoid some of them. So yeah, that person's life is going to seem easier. It IS easier. But in order to get out of a bad cycle, you need to work hard... the key is that you have to work on the right things. You have to work smarter AND harder.

That sucks. And it may even seem unfair. All I can say is that life was never guaranteed to be fair and, hey, what's the alternative? More of the same? Change for the worse? You might as well lay down and die.

I have had people say to my face that I have it easy. That things come easy to me. It's true that I have been incredibly blessed in some areas. I feel intensely grateful for my immediate family, for example. But in other areas I know I've had to work. I've had some intensely crappy jobs, for example. I was physically assaulted by a boss once. I've had to climb up a high sign on a slipper ladder in the rain in the dark in an unsafe area. I cleaned a bingo hall and have cleaned houses.

I've also struggled with very bad times and difficult issues. Most people don't know about them, but they were hard to get through and hard to get past. When I mention PTSD, trust me I know whereof I speak.

And even when I'm not in my dark night of the soul, shit still hits the fan. Like when we were in that rotten summer apartment in Colorado, and the toilet upstairs overflowed with no one home and the maintenance people ignored our calls and it took six hours of being massively flooded with toilet water while we carried our furniture out front door before they came and shut it off... and they didn't even offer us a place to stay? And then when they didn't clean it up right and we began to get ill and get infections (ear, finger, respiratory) and we had no medical insurance and I battled migraines without medication... that sucked.

But what I remember most about that summer was the joy of escaping a bad job and burdensome mortgage and taking some time off. Afternoons at the pool with the Ham, teaching her to enjoy the water. Making friends in the complex and having kids for Ham to play with. I remember it as a calm peaceful time to reconnect with myself and my family and get my priorities in order. I remember it as a very good thing and a wonderful time. We got through it.

You can get through it too.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Filling the well...

Cameron talks about "filling the well" in The Artist's Way. The idea is that creative inspiration comes from an internal well and that you have to replenish this well in order to continue being creative. Her point caused some general thinking on this topic and this morning I had a revelation -- creative inspiration isn't the only well we've got to keep filled.

I was thinking about how much chaos has been in our lives these past few weeks and how it's left me feeling depleted on several levels. Financially, we spent money on the move. Physically, our immune systems have been under some stress and we haven't been eating or sleeping well. Emotionally we're strung out and snappy. Mentally, we're tapped out and sluggish.

And no wonder! Between house hunting and packing and illness and emergency dental procedures and terrible weather and moving and on and on and on -- it's a wonder we're still holding things together right now. But we are. And we are primarily because we started this move some some reserves. Financially, we had cash for burly men and double utilities and lots of takeout. Physically we had been taking care of ourselves. Emotionally, we were happy and getting along. Mentally, we were sharp and thinking straight. We had some water in those various wells so that, even if there's a bit of a drought now, we are still OK.

That's good, because life can really seem like a long series of ups and downs in this way. There are times when all's well and running smoothly. Then there are other times when everything seems to go crazy and you need to expend lots of energy just hanging in there.

This led me to an interesting thought. If, in accordance with common wisdom, life has its ups and downs, then the key to living well is handling those changes well. For example, one of the results of moving is that you tend to get less than optimal sleep. Last week my husband was so tired that he brewed himself an extra cup of afternoon coffee. The next day in the afternoon he and I had the following conversation:

Him: I slept like crap last night.
Me: You had that coffee really late in the day.
Him: Yeah and I couldn't sleep and now I'm exhausted. Maybe I should have another cup of coffee now.
Me: Wait a second! Then you won't sleep well tonight again and will want extra coffee again tomorrow...

He agreed and just toughed it out until an early bedtime. Now the problem isn't that sometimes you're tired and want a little extra coffee. The problem is that this sort of thing can cause a very negative cycle. The next thing you know you've got a pot a day habit and a serious insomnia problem. And the results of that one stressful time start to trickle into the rest of your life. Soon the move will be done and life should calm down (knock wood) and we'll be back to sleeping better. But if we don't handle things during the rough time correctly, then it won't stop there.

And this gave me a very light bulb over the head kind of moment. Because everything is like that. If you're flush with cash, but blow it all playing the ponies, when you need the extra money during a dry patch it won't be there. So you'll be very stressed and anxious. Then when another flush period arrives, you'll be so relieved to be out from under that crushing stress that you'll probably be even more likely to blow the money (let's party!). There's no equilibrium and you'll always be stuck.

Here's another example. Your job is very stressful and taxing. At the end of each day you can barely expend the mental effort to turn on the TV for a few hours before falling into bed. But because of that you have no extra energy to spend finding a new job. Again, stuck.

A final example. You let yourself get run down and very, very ill. Three weeks later, you stumble out of your sick room to find that now you're behind on absolutely everything -- from work to social obligations. So off you run, doing and catching up and calling and emailing... until once again you crash, because you never gave yourself time to heal in the beginning.

Having ups and downs is a cycle. But never being able to build any reserves because if it is a vicious cycle. It goes from being an occasional rough time you deal with to an endless rough time that never seems to let up. And let's be honest, the checks you bounce when you're in that dry patch, the ill-will you build at the job you hate, the obligations you can't meet because you're always sick... those are the kinds of actions that lead directly to more rough times ahead! And not because of any metaphysical woo-woo, but through clear cause and effect.

So this leads leads to two obvious questions: First, how do you avoid sliding into such a vicious cycle? Second, and even more critical, how do you get yourself out of one. The first question is easier. Simply take time to fill those wells when things are calm. Put a little cash aside when there's extra. Eat right and get good sleep and exercise so that your health will be good. Take time to make and strengthen contacts with family and friends for the emotional good it brings. Keep your mind fresh by giving it a little exercise as well. And above all, let yourself enjoy the good times without overindulging. Then, when eventually the inevitable busy or stressful season comes, you'll be in the best shape possible to weather it.

The second question is a lot harder...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Gentle...

Julia Cameron's advice to treat yourself gently (in The Artist's Way) is particularly apropos for me this week. I am exhausted from the move. I am also finding myself upset over the fact that my supplies are packed away and there's no space or time to really create anything right now. And I don't mean in that in an exaggerated, whiny way. It's literal. We are awash in boxes and need to get settled before we can do more than stagger from room to room looking for things like a thermometer and children's Tylenol, the salt shaker, and various electronic connectors and controllers.

What makes this more annoying is that I've had an itch to create ever since I packed away my art supplies. It's bugging me but I can't do much about it right now. In fact,
I can barely keep my eyes open. All in all, a time to be gentle.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Smaller... smaller...

I am tired. I am frustrated. I am stressed. So basically, I'm feeling normal for someone who's moving house. When moving I always get a sudden strong urge to box up those things I care about or worry about first. So the books were just about the first things to get packed. Then the CDs and the various heirloom breakables. I felt a kind of anxiety until I got my office and art stuff packed up. The trouble is that I've been without these things for over a week and am getting antsy about my projects.

I was itching all weekend to pack the Ham's art supplies as well. I put it off to pack some items that I don't feel as strongly about, but that we are thinking of carting over early. In particular the linens and blankets because they took up a bunch of space in very large boxes. Better to just drive them over, put them in the linen closet (yay, we'll have a linen closet!) and bring the boxes back. Most of Ham's things are getting packed at the very last minute. It creates less anxiety for her and makes sure she has plenty to keep her busy.

One thing that I've been pondering is how much smaller our space has gotten. Our house in Colorado was very large. Almost 2700 square feet. After it sold much more quickly than we expected, we went to an apartment just down the street for the summer. I don't count that square footage because it was always going to be short-term and most of our stuff was in storage the entire time. The rental house we ended up in the autumn after we sold was 2200 square feet. Our rental house here in Portland is 1700. And the town home we're moving into is 1500.

Each time we've moved we've rid ourselves of things that we didn't need. At first this was a painful process. We'd spent so long owning nearly nothing and having nearly nothing, that getting rid of the things we'd acquired felt very strange and painful. But it turned out to be a very good process and there are only a few items that I miss... but not strongly enough to repurchase. Part of this re-education came from having that stuff in storage for three months. Some items were completely forgotten and ignored. But I can't tell you the number of times I was in there with a flashlight, digging through books to find a volume that I was missing.

I've also learned in having these various house sizes that layout is much more important than size. Making every square foot count is critical to enjoying whatever amount of space you have. I'm looking forward to seeing how the layout in this town home works for us. In particular I'm looking forward to my office/den -- a work and art space on the same level as the living room. On the other hand, the kitchen and dining area are closed off from the living room, which is a configuration that I don't like as much. We'll probably spend a lot of time huddled in the tiny dining room while the kitchen's in use.

Moving to a new house is all about what you get and what you give up. We're giving up a yard, most obviously. But we're getting newer appliances and a larger bathtub. We're getting a safer and quieter neighborhood and a better school... but we're giving up proximity to my work that made commuting so easy. It's always a trade-off and I've been using that to think about what I want more of in my life and what I want less of. While we're happy and things are going well, there are areas of unbalance that we want to work on.

So stuff to gestate for the next nine months? Less (of what we don't want). More (of what we do). And above all appreciation of the wonderful concept of enough.