Monday, February 10, 2014

Some Thoughts on Housekeeping, Kindness, and Variation

This morning, I was looking at my kitchen in despair. I was thinking about all the boxes of Christmas decorations I've not yet carried down to the basement. I was measuring up all the boxes from our move that I haven't yet unpacked against those I have. I was stunned and overwhelmed by the sheer mass of plastic bags that engulf our laundry room, despite my frequently remembering to request paper. I was trying to figure out how everyone else's garage floor stays clean. Yes, everyone else on the planet surely has a cleaner garage floor than I do. I was wrinkling my nose at the horrid smell lingering in my car because I forgot my Indian leftovers in there too long & the smell, apparently, lives long after the actual food has been removed, even when everything is frozen. I was feeling horrified at all that needs to be done in the house before we leave for our wedding trip and our cat sitter comes into our home. In short, I was thinking of all my housecleaning and organizational failures and excoriating myself for not being a better housekeeper, for not being more organized, for not being the kind of woman who, like my friend Connie (who happens also to be our cat sitter), meets a challenge and tackles it right away, diving into closet-building & room-painting after moving in, rather than looking at all the boxes and imperfections and walking into another room to settle in to write or read or socialize online or cook or---well, do anything but something about it. I was knocking myself for not being the sort of person who goes out and clears the driveway, for being the sort of person who hires someone to mow the lawn and weed the beds. I was mad at myself because my house has never been and probably never will be the sort of home which is always company-ready. I was scolding myself, saying, "Well, if you're not going to be a proper housewife, then you should at least be 3/4 of the way finished with your novel and already have a book deal." Oh, I was really letting my mind monkeys chatter and chatter. And, let me tell you, even now, I am castigating myself for writing about this rather than cleaning house or going to Lowe's to get materials for bookshelves or something else useful and yet, here I sit at the keyboard.

We all have those tapes running in our heads. Those inner critics, telling us we will never be enough. For some of us, it's the dad who will never let us think we are good enough, even when we've become  VP of Finance by the time we're 35. For others, it's the art school friends who think we've sold out when we take a commercial job that actually puts food on the table. Or it's the pastor telling us we are not godly because of who we love when all we wanted was some relationship guidance from someone we thought we could trust. Or it's a best friend who has always criticized our clothing choices and made us feel less-than. Or a co-worker who always talks about how crazy people are and how when he makes house calls, it's amazing what hoarders those people are, while we wonder what he would think if he could see our house and whether he tells other people we are mentally unstable. Or a brother who doesn't think we have the right to complain about our kids ever because we have three healthy kids while his wife miscarried. Or a music teacher who told us in no uncertain terms that we should just mouth the words at the winter concert, thus shutting down our very own singing voices ever after, no matter how much we love to sing. Or the guidance counselor who had such a narrow view of what success is that very few of us could fit within its confines. Or the Conference that won't ordain us if we don't affirm the doctrine they expect to hear, in the way they expect to hear it. Or the bully on the playground telling us we're weak and not worthy of companionship. Or the wife telling us we'll never measure up to her college boyfriend, who apparently hung the moon but never did it while holding a full-time job and helping raise children. Or the television shows that make it quite clear that people like us who have disabilities aren't really contributing members of society with our own value and worth. Or the commercials that prepared us for being grown women by talking about how a good wife never lets her husband suffer ring around the collar or her children play on a less-than-spotless floor. Or the magazines that tell us men must be well-muscled and rich while women should be slim and compliant. Or the fashion designers who would never risk their reputations by designing for fat people because it would ruin the look of their clothing to have people shaped like us wearing it. My tapes were running rampant and at full volume this morning and I was shoulding all over myself.

And then I thought. I thought, "Hey, I do some stuff. And I don't think badly of people who don't do that stuff. If someone doesn't cook, I don't assume it makes them inferior. If someone would rather go hiking than curl up with a book, I don't assume there's something wrong with them or they are intellectually lazy. If someone hates to write and would rather solve math problems or do science experiments, I don't think it reflects badly on their character. If someone would rather do just about anything than make an art piece, I don't scorn them. If someone has never worn a tiara in her life, I don't think she should just try harder to be a tiara-wearing kind of person."

So, let's knock it off. All of us. Let's start just being who we are. Let's be kinder to ourselves and quicker to notice our talents and special qualities than our shortcomings. And, above all, let's stop judging ourselves based on someone else's idea of what's right, what's normal, what's useful and good. Let's not apologize for bringing food from the market or a fast food joint to the potluck. Let's not spend all day cleaning before a party and then apologize for how messy our house is. Let's not avoid bible study because we are afraid we'll look ignorant. Let's not stay away from social contact when we're depressed or just pretend everything is okay when it's not. Let's not pretend we only like to read complex literary fiction or watch art house films when sometimes, we'd honestly really rather curl up with a James Patterson thriller or enjoy our popcorn to the latest superhero film. If we hate socializing, well, it's fine to stay in on Saturday night & enjoy our very own company. If church is not the place we find spiritually nourishing, it's okay to connect with Spirit in other ways. If coffee tastes like sludge from hell to us, why not just say we'd rather have a grape slushie? If a drag show is a whole lot more fun to us than the ballet, that doesn't mean we have no culture. If we are childless by choice or choose to co-sleep and nurse until the child decides he/she is ready or want to vaccinate our kids and put them on a feeding schedule or allow our boys to wear princess dresses or encourage our girls when they want to join the Army even though we brought them up to be pacifists or have a house without t.v. or let our kids watch all the Disney Channel they can stomach, let's let ourselves just be the kind of parent or not-parent we are. If our dogs are the only babies we need, well, by all means let's carry pics of them on our phones to show everyone. Let's stop with the guilt about not becoming the doctor or the activist or the musician or the teacher our parents wanted us to be. Let's stop worrying about whether we're doing it right and start enjoying the doing of it. Now. Today.

That said, let me excuse myself to continue getting the house more respectable-looking before we leave town.

J is for Journaling

We had a lovely, if chilly weekend, for our J date. Friday, I had lunch with a new friend, Connie, the wife of one of Jeannene's co-workers. The food, at a local Chinese & sushi place called Ming's that bills itself as having "the best Chinese food" in town, was not very good at all, but the proprietor kept our teapot filled and the conversation flowed for almost 4 hours. It's fun to have someone to hang out with right here in town. After she went off to pick up her husband, I came home to put on a pot of ham & bean soup and try to finish season 2 of Downton Abbey. I can't get over how lovely the interiors and the costumes are. The storyline is good, too, but the sumptuousness of the surroundings really nourishes my eyes. When the soup was nearly finished and Jeannene was home, I fixed some corn muffins to add to our supper. Friday's holiday was Muffin Day, so it was perfect. The soup turned out beautifully and Jeannene told me it was as good as her dad's, which is very high praise. Jeannene's dad was the cook in the family, a man who showed his love by feeding people. His Kentucky rearing showed in his food, too, and he was well-known for making Southern classics like biscuits and gravy superbly. His bean soup was renowned within the family, as well, so I was very proud for Jeannene to give me that compliment. My grandmom made terrific bean soup, too. When I was 21 or so, I set myself a goal of being at least as good a cook as her and my almost-grandma, Mary, by the time I was 40. I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I believe I have hit my goal. I love to cook and I think I do it very well, for the most part. I credit much of that to having learned to read recipes for successful ones and not using ones that will turn out poorly.

That said, this past week, I managed to make dinners 2 nights in a row that Jeannene wouldn't eat, at least in part. The first night, she objected to the Asian flank steak. I wasn't terribly surprised, as she is not a big fan of Asian food in general and hoisin sauce in specific, but she had just used hoisin on our Super Bowl Cornish game hens, so I thought she'd begun to like it. She thought the marinade made the meat taste tainted. Me, I liked it. She also doesn't dig chorizo, especially the Spanish-style chorizo I simply adore. The next night's dinner was, admittedly, not my favorite. It wasn't horrendous, however. The recipe called for cheapo white bread and American cheese, both of which I like for grilled cheese sandwiches. However, I apparently don't love them for cheese-stuffed French toast and Jeannene objected, as well. I ate mine, but I would make it next time with some good, thick sourdough or challah and cheese like Cabot extra-sharp cheddar or a nice Gruyère. The recipe was from Woman's Day way back in 2000 and, not meaning to sound snobby, I often find that recipes from that magazine turn out not to be my favorites. When I was in my 20s and learning to cook, I found it very useful, but my tastes have evolved. Perhaps, too, their recipes have evolved since 2000. All this is to say that I was quite relieved to have made a dinner she found "fabulous!" I guess I show my love by feeding people, too.

Saturday morning, Jeannene returned the favor with a meal worthy of her dad, something, in fact, that I suspect he made often. I'd never had smoked pork chops before I met Jeannene, had never had them until this winter, in fact, when she picked some up at a smokehouse near the plant. To me, they're like ham elevated to a higher level. Not that ham itself isn't good and, if it's country ham, there is little better, especially if it's served with delicate little biscuits and you are at the Loveless Café in Nashville. But, I digress. Jeannene made smoked pork chops, eggs over-medium, and biscuits for our breakfast. It was delicious! In trying to eat healthier, I am going the route of smaller portions, less processed food, less salt, less sugar. Moderation. I am also learning only to eat what I really want, what is really worth it. That breakfast was worth it! After breakfast, we meandered over to the local coffee shop to sip a couple of lattes over books before our J date. This shop, Crates Coffee House, has only been open a few weeks. The owner is interested in making it a real community center and has created a wonderfully warm and lovely atmosphere. Having finished our drinks, we headed to the library for our J date. I like to keep the dates a surprise until we are actually there. When I turned onto the road for the library, Jeannene guessed that I wasn't just dropping off the audiobook of Neverwhere, but that our date was there. It was especially funny, then, that there was a big sign out front for a kids' movement class. The sign wasn't super-clear on it being a kids' event, though, and so Jeannene thought I was making her go to a dance class, jazz dance to be specific. I giggled like mad and was utterly delighted. She has been dragged by me to belly-dancing classes twice. Once was with our women's spirituality circle years ago and we both found it completely puzzling, although fun. The last time was on a women's retreat last winter. They'd planned to bring in a ballroom dance instructor who ended up not being available, so they did belly-dancing instead. We laughed so hard our faces hurt as we tried to do the complex motions. It was actually a grand time.

Once we entered the library, though, Jeannene realized it was a kids' dance thing and was vastly relieved I was only making her do art. Our library has all kinds of cool workshops. I was really mad at myself last month when we missed out on a found object necklace workshop because I neglected to register in time and the class filled. So, I had registered for the art journal workshop almost immediately so we would be able to do that. It just happened to work out well for our J date, too. We had a wonderful time creating pages for a journal and learning about some techniques, as well. One of my favorite ideas was to use a picture of a door as an actual, moveable door on the page. Jeannene made a door in hers of Citrucel-treated paper that looks really cool. I did not make moveable doors for this piece, but have noted the idea for the future. I also got to see, in person, the results of a packing tape image transfer and will be playing with that technique. The best idea I got, however, was that of creating books from empty toilet paper and paper towel rolls! I always hate the waste of them, but find the toilet paper rolls without cardboard unwieldy and hard to use, so I just chuck the tubes in the recycling bin. But the little books were so cool and would be so much fun to make! I bet people would like getting them as little gifties, too. Perhaps even little recipe collections? Illustrated. Wouldn't that be cool? I felt sorry, after the class, to hear Jeannene say that she would probably just throw hers away. I think hers is really cool, but she doesn't think she can do art, always says it looks like a kindergartener made it. Hell, what does she think a Pollock looks like? The main point is that we have fun making art. But also, we need to realize that we create differently. It doesn't mean we are better or worse, just that our style is different. In her family, though, her brother was always the artist and she was the writer. So, thus it must remain. She knows she's a kick-ass writer, at least.

After the workshop, we lingered in the library, choosing movies. Both Captain America and Thor were in, so we decided to make it Superhero Night! First, though, we headed into Oxford to pick up a gift for Pie's girlfriend. She'll be 21 next week. On our way to the shop, we spotted a local goods store, things produced in Michigan. Inside, lo and behold, there were postcards for sale! I have been looking high and low for postcards for the last couple of weeks and have not been able to find any. I'd been afraid that postcards might be going the way of the dodo, but there they were. Jeannene teased me for buying 20 on the spot. We were also able to order, from a wine shop, the Elektra moscato we've been looking for ever since we moved. We were both hungry, so we popped into a Mexican place she'd heard was good. It was, indeed. We split a chicken chimichanga, with a couple of gorditas on the side. I'd been tempted to order the carnitas, but they are so often lacking in flavor. I was glad Jeannene got a carnitas gordita because I was able to discover that this is the case here, as well. However, the shredded beef was stellar, juicy and flavorful. We also got tropical drinks, a Blue Hawaiian for her and a Sexo en la Playa for me, in hopes that they would chase all thoughts of winter away. Not so much luck with that. It's been such a miserable winter that I've begun to tag all of my Instagram snow pictures #livingonhoth. I am ready for the thrill of crocuses, for waking up to birdsong instead of snowblowers in the mornings, for heading outside on the spur of the moment without lacing up boots and shrugging into coats and wrapping a scarf around my neck and pulling on hat and gloves. It makes me tired just to write about it. Once home, we got a cozy fire going, snuggled under blankets on the couch, and watched our superhero movies.

Sunday morning, after staying up until nearly 3, we skipped church in favor of sleeping in. What luxury to be able to do that, after 3.5 years of being at the church, ready to help lead service, every Sunday by 8. We had a little breakfast and packed up our things for a long day at the coffee shop. Jeannene's got a big week coming and had a lot of work to do. I filled my bag with my computer, colored pencils, a coloring book, magazines, the Anne Rice novel I'm reading (The Wolves of Midwinter), postcards, gel pens...that is to say, all sorts of tools for fun! I happily sipped Earl Grey Lavender tea and wrote out postcards to Anke in Germany, Alexandra in Russia, Catherine in Belarus, Joona in Finland, and Coby in the Netherlands. I am delighted that Tyler hepped me to the fun of Postcrossing! I can't wait to start getting postcards from all over the world. It's fun to learn about the people, too. This one loves to cook, that one is a Harry Potter fan, the other one is only 9 years old and loves animals.
We'd gotten to the coffee shop right after the birthday party for the owner's grandma and it was very quiet after the mirth. I was honored that the owner's daughter, who is a tiny, blond 2-year-old whom I had not yet met, saw me and immediately broke into a large smile and raised her arms to be picked up. It's a shame my hands were full. Her father was apologetic, which just seemed all kinds of strange to me! Whyever would you apologize for having a lovely, friendly little girl?

Although I did not think it a good idea, given Jeannene's busy week upcoming, we took the time to drive out to the bookstore and Whole Foods before heading home. I'm glad we did because I was able to get the books for both my book groups. One is for the Uppity Book Women, Sarah Addison Allen's latest, Lost Lake. I started it when we went to bed and could not stop reading it, only finally putting it down and removing my glasses when I dozed off repeatedly and almost dropped the book. The other is Tell The Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. I love belonging to a book group that's not mine because I end up being challenged to read books I'd not otherwise choose. This one looks great, too! I also picked up a large, attractive book about vegetables to turn into a journal. It cost the same as the discounted journals, but is hardbound rather than spiral bound and gives me more surface on which to work. We were disappointed at Whole Foods not to discover the Greek Gods salted caramel yogurt Jeannene was seeking nor reasonably priced cornmeal for my enchilada soup. I may, if I dig deep in the pantry, discover that I have a partial bag of masa which should suffice nicely. We simply do not like this location nearly as much as the one we frequented in Dublin. It's close by, but it's just not doing it for us. Maybe we need to try the one in Ann Arbor or Detroit.

Once home, I dove into fixing supper while Jeannene relaxed on the couch with her Persians. I made a cheater chicken tagine, using skinless, boneless chicken breasts in a skillet atop the stove instead of whole chickens, cut into pieces and placed in my tagine in the oven. The chicken violation alone is enough to cause revocation of my serious foodie card, I know. I just get the heebies when eating chicken on the bone, unless it's cut from a whole roasted chicken or southern-fried. So, revoke away, food snobs of the world, and I will continue to eat what I like. I will used condensed cream of mushroom soup in recipes and American cheese on my grilled cheese sandwiches. I will nibble on Ho-Hos and eschew caviar (unless I get to poink it merrily across my plate in a fancy restaurant----then, by all means, bring on the caviar!). I will avoid rabbit and elk steadfastly and chance the neon orange of Cheetos on occasion. But I will also make apple cider vinaigrette from scratch and put chile powder in my chocolate cookies and relish plump organic raspberries and make my own marshmallows and play around with maple syrup in my cheese crisps and devour half a head of kale at a sitting in Tuscan kale salad. And I will not apologize for any of it.