Friday, December 23, 2011

Time For the Christmas Feast

This was Christmas Eve in 2010.  It's not so cold or so beautiful this year.

My lead-up to the holiday this year has been slow.  All the annoying bumps in the road for surgery recovery have seemed finally to even out, so this week I’ve been going full tilt at completing decorations and cooking.  My mom’s strawberry bread and fudge have already been made once and distributed for gifts.  Now it’s time for round 2 for the family.  Last night my son’s girlfriend, Laurie, and I made two large casserole pans of my mom’s chicken casserole for the family Christmas Eve meal.  There are more cookies to bake today for the family gathering so that night before Christmas can be left to wrapping presents.

If you asked me what my favorite gifts were over the years, I would be hard pressed to rattle them off like men reciting baseball statistics.  For me, Christmas has always been about the food.  My family is not the sort to serve a traditional Christmas meal of roasted turkey or ham with all the trimmings served on white lace tablecloths with festive candles filling the room.  From my very first memory of Christmas, it has always been my Granny’s spaghetti, first created because there were so many mouths to feed at the family gathering each year.  It took years for anyone to write the recipe down.  When my Aunt Nancy followed her around the kitchen for that purpose she had trouble getting it right because Granny would wander into the kitchen later and add something else when no one was watching.  Through group collaboration we finally got it down on paper (the secret ingredient is bacon).

The reason for the season

Christmas is also not Christmas without my Grandma’s strawberry cookies.  You may ask what’s so Christmas-like about strawberry cookies.  Nothing, except that is when Grandma made them.  She was not a big cookie maker – more a pie kind of baker – but each December she went through the painstaking process of cooking the mixture of dates and sugar and pecans and butter that formed the basis of this treat.  When it had cooled she sat in front of the TV and spent the afternoon molding spoonfuls of the sweet concoction into the shape of a strawberry, then rolling it in red sugar and carefully creating a green leaf at the large end with a can of Betty Crocker’s icing in a can.  They were as bright and beautiful as Christmas neon.  One year after serving as her strawberry assistant I submitted her recipe to a Christmas cookie contest for the newspaper.  It won an honorable mention and a photo, but the food editors felt that they knew better and rolled the cookie concoction in multi-colored sprinkles instead of red sugar.  I suppose it worked for some, but the brilliant red and green gifts from Grandma’s hands were what made the Christmas table.

So as you sit down to share a meal with family and friends at the end of this year, whether Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s or other special occasion remember all you’ve been given this year.  Remember all who are not with you.  And give a special thought to all who suffer and are alone at this time of the year.  I wish you all the best and I’ll be back to regular posting after the New Year.  I’ve got some eating to do now.

I know I should have had photos of culinary creations today, but I just couldn’t get it done.  But stories about them are just as tasty.  What is your favorite food from family holidays?  You can think outside the Christmas season if you want and tell us about barbecue at Labor Day or latkes at Hanukkah or any family food that comes around only rarely and brings memories with it.  Please share in the comments box.

Skyler with her present from last year.  I think I'll just wrap it and
give it to her again this year.

You Must Read:  This fall two blogging friends have published books that you must rush out and buy now to read during the cold nights of January.  Kristin Espinasse, of the French Word A Day blog, has recently published Blossoming in Provence.  It’s another in her series of books with photographs and stories about her life as an American raising two French children and adjusting to life at a Provence vineyard with her French husband.  She has a wonderful eye for the scenes of France that she translates both with her camera lens and her words.

The other book you want to read is The Foreign Language of Friends, by Nadine Feldman.  It tells the story of four very different women brought together in a Spanish class but who find they learn more than the language with this chance encounter.  It’s for anybody who has faced a transition in their lives and have to choose a path.  Nadine’s blog, A Woman’s Nest, shares thoughts and suggestions on travel in the world and into a life of creativity and joy.

Read another story about our Christmas vacation that wasn’t.  Sometimes the best times are when nothing happens.

 merry merry2 122510

Thursday, December 15, 2011

10 Things I'd Edit Out of My Life, or Making Room For the Good Stuff

Some things are well worth the space they occupy, like my Russian Grandfather Frost collection at Christmas
(you should see how many are on the tree)

Before the great decorating frenzy that is Christmas at our house I looked around the living room to figure out if there were a new place to put the tree other than the same corner where it had sat for the last gazillion Christmases.  I wanted it still visible through the French windows across the front of our house, so how could I rearrange the furniture to make this happen?  The only logical conclusion was to sell my husband’s piano so I could move the couch to the wall the piano had owned since we moved into this house.  Would you like to know how that conversation went?

I went out last week and purchased more Christmas paraphernalia, despite the fact that we have a small storage room in the basement dedicated to storing what I already had.  And now I’ll have to buy some kind of container to store the new decorations in.  And so it goes.  It only seems appropriate, then, that this week I ran across a TED talk that was titled “Julie, You Better Watch This Because I’m Talking To You.  Yes, You” – or something like that.  TED is the nonprofit organization whose mission is to spread worthy ideas.  Every year at its annual conference the best minds in Technology, Entertainment, and Design have eighteen minutes or less each to give the most inspiring talk they can, and then these are put up on the internet to share with the world.

That’s where I found Graham Hill, guru of sustainable living, telling me that less stuff means more happiness. He talked about the benefits of an “edited life.”  As a writer, I know something of editing, i.e., paring a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter down to only the most essential words to convey the idea.  That doesn’t mean cutting out beauty, poetry, or important details.  Just choose what’s needed and leave the rest behind.  Life editing, Hill said, gives us all a little more freedom, a little more time, and turns less into more.  I decided to try this life editing on my own terms (you can see his talk in full, below, or here). 

10 Things I’d Edit Out of My Life

1) Time Sucks – I’m an information junkie so I waste much too much time filling my head with every detail about every event in the universe – newspaper, television, internet, cereal box. Tom Cruise to the God Particle. I have to be more selective so I can focus on what makes me grow as a person, e.g., with my writing.

2) Blame – Blaming random people and/or things for why I don’t get my house renovated, or my writing revised and submitted, or my weight lost takes up too much space.  My recovery from surgery kept me from being productive for the last two months.  Yeah, but what’s my excuse for the first ten months of this year?

3) Martyrdom – Corollary to Blame.  I need to strike this sucker completely out of my life, kill it with a red pen.  No matter how much I stomp around the house or pout, I ain’t no martyr.  Give it up, Julie.

4) Unhealthy Choices – How many times in a day do I get to make healthy choices for my life?  How many of those times do I pick the unhealthy route?  Graham Hill is right.  Less is more (except when it comes to exercise for a woman of my age – more, more, more).

5) Late Nights – Occasionally staying up late to read or to work a fabulous idea like this into a blog is a good thing.  Staying up late to watch Rachel Maddow reruns, or check Facebook “one last time,” or eat, or sort mail is just one more unhealthy choice I need to reduce, like a sequoia milled down to a toothpick.

6) Things – I don’t engage in mindless consumerism, but I don’t need to possess everything I love.  Someday I’ll write about my collections.  It’s time to start paring down now so my kids don’t have to do it later.  But this does NOT include my books.

This space could use a bit of editing, ya think?

7) Negative conversations – Mine and those of others.  A time suck, an energy drain, a distraction from really inspiring ideas.  They can’t be avoided, but they can be limited.

8) Paper – We’re drowning in it.  I hired an organizer to bring some order.  I have more work to do with her.  I know I’ll never digitize everything.  But shuffling papers, searching for papers, filing papers is a grizzly bear-sized time suck, and is a direct cause for blame and martyrdom, as well as late nights.  I need to learn to never touch a paper more than once or twice.  Act on it or toss it.

9) Perfection – Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Julie.  Don’t let it be the enemy of actually getting something finished.  Perfection is also a great, galumphing time suck.

10) (nothing more to say – 9 is enough, I don’t need a perfect 10; it’s late and I really should get to bed; spending all of this time blaming all the things I’m not doing instead of doing the things I should be doing does not get the job done, and so on)

So if I get out my great big red pen and start editing my life, as Hill urges us all to do, it won’t be long before I have more time and space for the good stuff.  Who knows, maybe I’d accomplish something that made me qualify for my own TED talk.

What did you think of Graham Hill’s talk?  Where would you start editing your own life?  Start the conversation in the comments box.

Here's what I was thinking about at the beginning of the year.  My blog has been my own little motivational cheerleader this year.  Don't ask if I've accomplished all I talked about.  But at least I have my driving directions down on paper for the next year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cheap? A Priceless Christmas Gift Is The Way To Go

12/9/11-Christmas gifts1
Nicholas had no idea why we had a tree in the house before his first Christmas as part of our family

Yikes!  It’s 18 days until Christmas and all I’ve purchased is one small stocking stuffer.  It’s not like I haven’t hit the stores.  It’s just that I seem to come out of them with bags of things only for me – new holiday makeup, new holiday necklace, new red sweater.  All vital necessities, but still not gettin’ the job done.

Aside from the savvy shoppers who snapped up the $75,000 yurts and the $395,000 sports cars in retailer Neiman Marcus’ 2011 Christmas Book, the average person says he’ll be spending just under $700 for presents this year.  At least half of that, I’m sure, will go towards batteries.  My kids are grown, so no more piles of presents taller than the tree for each of them.  My sisters and I decided a few years ago that since all the kids in the family were grown we didn’t need to go wild at Christmas buying for the extended family.  At Thanksgiving dinner we pull names for the gift giving, so with one name and a $30 limit Christmas shopping finally becomes sane.

If I had to guess, I would estimate that half of my family Christmas budget goes toward the stockings hung by the chimney with care.  It’s the gift that gives back as I sneak Gummies and chocolate Santas when my kids aren’t looking.  My mom used to wrap individual pieces of her homemade fudge and put it in our stockings.  It was a favorite because it meant that none of us would miss out on that special treat if someone beat us to the Christmas cookie tin.  Creativity came in when money was an object.

My blogging friend Nancy Mueller, who writes about all the wonderful places she travels, recently told her readers about a gift we all could give that would cost so little of our time and money but make a huge difference in a child’s life.  For only $10 we could give the gift of libraries to children living in places where such things are usually just a fantasy.  So check out Nancy’s post here about donating to the cause through Passports with a Purpose.  Consider making an extra donation in the name of a family member or friend.

Although I’m talking about the price of Christmas, it’s not expensive presents that stick with me year after year.  No, the things I remember about the season are priceless.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, all of us squeezing into Granny’s apartment on Christmas Eve.  Waking up one year to find that my mom had sewn a complete wardrobe for my favorite Pepper doll.  Eagerly waiting in the hallway with my sisters each Christmas morning until Dad had his coffee and was ready to face the chaos of the Grand Unwrapping.  How warm and inviting Mom always made the house look each December.  When I dream of Christmases past I realize that many of the best gifts I’ve received throughout my life really were free or cost practically nothing.

Here are just a few:

-- A daughter who shares my birthday – that’s a gift that keeps on giving

-- A love of reading from my Dad – I’ll have that gift until the day I die

-- No argument from my parents when I wanted to go away to college – my sisters all stayed in town, so I knew what it meant when Mom and Dad gave their baby girl their blessing to leave home and never tried to persuade me otherwise

-- Two teenagers willing to spend a Mother’s Day one year walking around the Missouri Botanical Garden, pretending to like the flowers

-- My Granny’s powder in Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev – Granny always gave lacy underwear or pajamas or beautiful blouses for Christmas.  She’d sprinkle her body powder in the box and I’d hate the day when I had to wash the clothes because I knew I’d lose that smell.  One Christmas when I was a teenager, I insisted on that book and jumped for joy when, unwrapping the present, I smelled her powder between the pages.  The best part about this gift is that even forty years later I can still smell her when I pick up the book.

-- A husband who puts up with me after almost 30 years – this is a gift from the Universe

I know they’re not as glamorous as an HD flat screen television snatched from the hands of another shopper at a Black Friday sale.  And I have to admit I enjoy the fully loaded e-reader I found under the tree.  One year, though, perhaps I’ll challenge myself to do an entire Christmas without stepping into a single retail store (that includes online shopping). Dust bunny collages anyone?   But mostly I think I’ll just keep looking for ways to give of my gifts throughout the year.  That’s truly priceless.  What do you think?

What has been your favorite gift for any occasion that cost nothing or next to nothing but meant the world?  Please share it with us in the comments box.  And don’t forget to check out the link (above) for Passports With a Purpose donations.

Yes, I actually wore this homemade Christmas pin in days past.  It's now a bit fragile.
12/9/11-Christmas gift2

I was planning on sending all of my readers something unique and wildly extravagant to put under their Christmas trees.  Unfortunately, I’m running low on wrapping paper, and the line at the post office is horrifically long, so I think I’ll simplify things a little.  My gift to you this holiday season is a wonderful recipe passed on to me from my friend, Martine, in Paris.  ‘Tis the season for soup, and this one is easy as well as incredibly healthy.  It would be great to serve with a Christmas feast or to make after an exhausting day of shopping.  Add a splash of pimento or a dash of paprika and you’ll have a festive Christmas in a bowl.

Soupe de Courgettes (Zucchini Soup) -- serves 4-6
- 2-3 zucchinis (about 35 oz or 1 kg total)
- Chicken stock for cooking the zucchinis (homemade, in a carton, or made with water and 2-3 bouillon cubes to just cover the vegetables in the pot)
- 1 onion, diced (white or yellow)
- 2-3 servings of Laughing Cow cheese (Vache Qui Rit; it comes in a round, flat box with the cheese wrapped in individual triangles)
- Salt and pepper

Sauté the onions for about 5 minutes in oil in a 3-quart pot until slightly brown.  Chop the zucchini into small chunks.  Add them to the pot and add water or stock to just cover them.  Add bouillon now if using regular water.  Heat to boiling and then simmer 30 minutes or until tender.  When cooked, purée the mixture.  Then add the cheese and mix or purée again until smooth.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Handy Hint:  If you click here, you’ll see that Mme. Monica uses an immersion blender.  I’ve recently purchased one and it is a miracle worker when it comes to mixing and blending.  If you get it with the whipping and chopping attachments you may never again need any of those bulky countertop kitchen machines.  It’s not too late to add to your Christmas list.

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Reflection On My Mirror Image

Skyler says, "Things are looking up around here now that Mom can pick me up again and put me in the car
to go places.  I was getting bored."

One of the most horrendous side effects of my recent surgery and recovery was to realize that I am old.  Not “getting older.”  Not “aging gracefully.”  But old.  I now find myself drawn into those infomercials for Lifestyle Lifts, or the French cantaloupe miracle face creams that will make me look like super-model Cindy Crawford, or those electronic devices that will remove hair from places that only my grandmother had to worry about.  I am old.  Mirror, mirror in my hand, who’s the oldest in the land?

After the cervical fusion I could turn my neck only slightly to the left or right, and not up or down at all.  This lack of mobility made it difficult to handle such grooming routines as styling my hair, changing pierced earrings, or searching for errant dog hairs that took up residence in my eye.  I couldn’t comfortably lean in over the vanity in order to move closer to the bathroom mirror for any of these tasks.  I decided my best solution was a new hand mirror.

I bought one with 10x magnification on one of the sides.  That’s when I discovered a mustache growing above my upper lip that had to be a cousin to – or even a twin of – that thick patch of hair growing above Geraldo Rivera’s mouth.  How could I be so blind?  Had it been hidden by some anti-aging rose-colored glasses?  But now I see.  It’s a veritable forest of luxuriously long facial hairs waving in the breeze, so numerous that they could never be tamed simply with a pair of tweezers. With the help of my new 10x personal jumbotron I even found one of those wicked creatures trying to plant its flag and stake a claim in my chin.

Self-portrait post surgery with swollen face, cervical collar, and bone growth stimulator
But that’s not all.  Oh no, I’m even older than my mustache lets on.  In fact, I must be as old as the moon because surely those things called “pores” are as deep as those craters we see on a summer night with our telescope.  The blood vessels on my chin (I’m sure courtesy of my Grandma’s rosacea) flash like Las Vegas neon, spreading out across my fair skin like the Amazon River and all its tributaries.  My eyes somehow have become framed by the miles-deep canyons of the American Southwest.  And while I was willing to admit to the two or three small age spots on my cheek and brow, I now see that it is really a dozen small Saharas spreading quickly across the landscape of my face.

Where would I draw my own line now in resisting this newly discovered downward spiral?

I’m trying not to fixate on the magnified side of my mirror, to return to the regular side and my attitude that, although I don’t look twenty-five anymore, my face also doesn’t look like I spent my life puffing on cigarettes while frying in the sun.  I look good enough when I walk out the door each day.  I make the effort to do the best with what I’m given.

What’s a mirror image anyway?  It’s the reflected duplication of an image, but in reverse.  That piece of silvered glass shows me my age . . . decay . . . every fault.  I know that’s me inside the red frame I hold in my hand; I recognize myself.  However, it’s just an imitation.  The real me – the reverse of that reflection – isn’t aging as quickly on the inside, the part the mirror can’t see.  I finally returned to yoga class after almost two months of inactive recuperation and found that I could still stand strong in my tree pose, and I left more energized that when I had arrived.  I have a new pile of books to read to keep my mind agile.  I’m thinking about where I’ll travel next because curiosity about new places, in my opinion, is a better youth tonic than Retin-A.

I’m starting to make friends with what I found under the 10x magnification.  There might be a few things I can do to spruce up that version of Julie that aren’t the equivalent of knocking out a load-bearing wall in a home renovation project. But for the most part I think I’ll continue to put my focus on the self I can’t see, the one looking out on the world through what I now know are clearly aging eyes.  That one is easier to improve than the magnified mirrored image I saw. 
What makes you feel older?  Where do you focus your attention or energy when you want to feel younger?  My oldest friend and I used to joke that we never felt our real age (until recently).  What age do you usually feel?  Please share your thoughts on aging or your favorite “anti-aging” technique in the comments box.
The best way to get younger, Skyler and I think, is to head out for a good walk with good scenery
(our first excursion post-surgery)
I’ve been MIA on a large scale since my cervical fusion surgery.  I’ve been MIA on my blog, on e-mail, on Facebook, on Twitter, on websites of friends and organizations that continue to post compelling things I should be reading but have passed me by.  Time – and the internet – wait for no man or woman.  The surgery went fine.  I felt improvement the moment the anesthesia wore off.  What has kept me down for so long was a steady stream of physical ailments, one after another, that flat laid me out on the couch, no energy even to read.  Focusing my eyes on a computer screen seemed like too much effort.  But I’ve started physical therapy and feel back on track.  I hope to catch up with all of you soon.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Thankful Thanksgiving

This creature we saw on a pre-Thanksgiving walk last year doesn't have to worry about being anyone's dinner.
This was in a protected park.

I hope all of my American readers are having (or had, if you were too busy eating turkey today) a wonderful Thanksgiving.  For those readers who don’t celebrate this holiday, select a day of your choice to count your blessings.   Here are some things for which I’m thankful this year:

Turkey – Roasted turkey, turkey gravy, turkey sandwiches, turkey soup, turkey casserole.  It’s all good.

Health – Not everyone in my family (truth be told, most of us) is fit to compete in a triathalon – or even a 5K walking race – but we’re still here and still moving.  I say a prayer for friends who are not so lucky.

Apple pie – I know.  It’s corny.  But when I make one I’m twelve years old again and in my mom or my grandma’s kitchen learning for the first time.  I love the things that make it feel like they’re in the room with me again.

Never-ending supply of democracy – Although some days I watch the television or read the paper and wonder where it’s gone, I know it still exists here.  We occasionally might have to make a lot of noise to remind people, but at least my country is not in flames like a friend’s home country, which is trying to claim the big D for the first time.

Kids – Mine, specifically.  They’re both heading out into the world but seem happy to come home, too.  I can’t ask for much more.

Food on the table every day – I don’t ever take it for granted.  This week I delivered my church’s monthly contributions to a local food pantry, which has seen almost a 50% increase in the number of clients they serve.  While there, grade school students were enthusiastically unloading a truck full of food they had collected.  They are starting young to care about those in need.  For that I’m thankful.

Uh, sorry – I’m drawing a blank here.  Suggestions?
(editorial addendum -- after I published my husband came back with "How about 'Undying devotion of your husband?'"  Of course.  There's nothing better to add.)

Love from family and friends – It surrounds me and lifts me every day.  I try to give back and pass it on.

After you’ve recovered from mounds of mashed potatoes and heaps of whipped cream on pumpkin pie, then gear up for Small Business Saturday.  Yes, it’s another specially designated shopping day to encourage you to spend spend spend.  But this one is new and very much worth supporting (read here for reasons why it’s a good idea).  It’s scheduled for the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  On that day get out and support the small, local businessperson.  He pays local taxes, doesn’t ask for kickbacks or tax relief from the city council before he opens his door, and spends his profits locally instead of shipping them off to national headquarters someplace else.

On Saturday visit a shop that sells what is unique and personal.  Eat at a one-of-a-kind local restaurant instead of a chain.  Pay full price for a book at a homegrown bookstore.  Support the businesses that give our communities their personalities.  Let them know that you are glad that they chose your neighborhood to set up shop.  I know that on Saturday I’ll stop by my massage/yoga studio to check out the new bamboo socks and handmade soap.  Maybe I’ll get a massive breakfast at a local diner.  Maybe I’ll end the day watching a movie at a theater not owned by national chains, where the popcorn really is popped as you wait and they stand outside the door with a tray of candy to offer you one final treat before you hit the cold night air.

Happy Thanksgiving.  I’m off to bake that pie.

My flash is bigger than yours, my nephew bragged last Thanksgiving.
To see what he creates with it, visit one of his many websites (click here)

I hope your holiday is filled with family and good cheer.  Pick a letter and share with us in the comments box what you’re thankful for and/or how you’ll support Small Business Saturday.  And, if you have any ideas, please tell me what you’d put for “U.”

When you finish here, you can click here to read about my Thanksgiving in France.  Finding a turkey in November there wasn’t the only problem.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Eating While Shopping -- Is It OK or a Sign of Cultural Apocalypse?

Don't pinch or poke the merchandise.  Someone will serve you soon.

There’s one store in Dijon, France that has as much as banned me.  Ok, I don’t think I’ve been officially banned (although with my weak language skills I never can be too certain).  However, I do know that my face is permanently imprinted on the French Black Avenger’s memory (or Le Avenger Noire?).  Yes, the man fashionably clad all in black caught this very déclassé American doing the unthinkable.  I messed with the merchandise.

The dark-cloaked store manager caught me unscrewing the cap on a bottle of body lotion to see if it really did smell of the wonderful summer aroma of apricots promised on the front.  He wagged his finger in the air, pinning me against the wall with a dark look, and his angry brows drew together in a deep frown.  You would have thought that I had begun to slather my body with the stuff in the middle of the store.  I am forever ashamed to show my face in that store again.

In France you don’t help yourself.  You don’t finger the grapes or open the box to check the color.  There are no self-serve soda dispensers or many U-scan machines.  Clerks will retrieve items off of high shelves, they will follow you through boutiques carrying your choices to the changing room and returning unwanted items to the proper rack with the hangers facing just so.  They will choose the best tomatoes for you at the market.  They will find the perfect fragrance for you at the makeup counter.  But they will not let you run through the place willy-nilly behaving as you please.

I’m thinking about my most shameful experience in that country because I recently read about a woman in Hawaii who was arrested for eating food at the grocery store she hadn’t paid for.  She swore that she intended to pay for the sandwich but then forgot and walked out of the store with her other purchases and the empty sandwich wrapper.  The situation brought attention to a growing trend of people munching their way through the store as they shop.

I can see the sense in eating a single grape to test a bunch before putting it in my cart.  In France the fruit vendors will often offer a sample to entice you to buy.  But now I see mothers filling a bag with fresh cookies from the bakery section and then feeding them to toddlers as they push their carts through the store.  They reach the checkout lane, hand the empty bag to the checker, and say, “I had six of these.”  Yeah, right. 
Waiting patiently for Sunday's loaf of bread

I’ve seen people tearing into packaged lunchmeat, drinking from cartons of milk, eating sushi rolls, ripping open bags of chips or boxes of crackers and start feeding their kids on the spot, claiming they still intend to pay for the opened merchandise.  Every time I witness this I ask myself “When did this start?” and “What made people think it’s acceptable?”  I would have asked myself “What would their mothers say?” if mothers weren’t in on this.  Yes, I myself have torn at boxes of mallomars before I reached the car, but it never occurred to me to touch any of my food before I hit the checkout line.

Why wouldn’t I?  It seems relatively unsanitary.  And if you nibble on a banana, apple, or anything else charged by the pound it’s impossible to get the correct weight, hence you underpay. It also just seems like a tacky thing to do.  And while I don’t have statistics to back it up, I’d bet a lot of that “saved” power bar packaging never sees the light of day at the checkout lane.  And then that “forgotten” item adds to my grocery bill as stores increase prices to balance out what they call “shrinkage” (broken items, shoplifted items, etc.)  How many intentional shoplifters actually make the claim “Oh, I just forgot to pay for it”?  Even as recently as ten years ago I don’t remember seeing so much noshing going on in the aisles of the supermarket.  Has our culture become so self-centered that we walk through life believing “I want to do X so it can’t be bad”?

I could understand if someone were having a diabetic attack and needed something NOW.  That is a true emergency.  However, I don’t remember my mom ever giving us anything in the store, and I’m sure we had our crabby moments.  She either just endured it or shopped faster or left the cart where it was and took us home.  As for the adults, hunger is no excuse.  You won’t die from hunger or thirst in the time it takes to run through the checkout line.

Very little seems taboo anymore.  The whole concept of taboo behavior seems quaint.  Shame seems to hold little weight.  Yet when I’m in France I’m never under the impression that manhandling the merchandise is acceptable.  You wait to be served at the vegetable stand or at the luggage store (where I buy beautiful backpacks each year).

I know that eating while shopping is not the largest problem this country faces.  As our first (and probably last) Super Committee gets ready to produce a Super Fail this week I can’t help, though, but think about our growing habit of consuming before paying.  And if we walk out of the store with something we forgot to pay for, well, instead of returning to rectify the situation we shrug our shoulders and say “No biggy – I’m basically an honest person.  I meant well.  I’ll do better tomorrow.”  I’m OK.  Just take my word on it.

Engaging in the national pasttime -- waiting in line

Please enlighten me here.  What do you think about eating while you shop in a supermarket and why?  Do you think it’s becoming more prevalent?  All opinions in the comments box will be read with the greatest interest.  But maybe what we really need is our own local Black Avenger to set us right.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What I Read -- Lots of Award-Winning Stuff That You Should Read, Too

The truth, and nothing but the truth -- that's how I roll

Sometimes good things happen when you’re not paying attention.  People give you little presents “just because.”  It’s kind of like finding a $10 bill in the pocket of your jeans that didn’t get destroyed when you threw that pair in the washing machine without checking first.  Or a car departs a street parking space right as you arrive so you can pull straight in and not have to try to parallel park your big-ass SUV.  And there’s still time left on the meter.

Such is the kind of surprise I found as I recovered from surgery and finally got back to my computer.  I had a message that my new, wonderfully witty blogosphere friend, Laura, had left me an award on her blog Catharsis: Not Your Average Mommy Blog (believe it!).  She graced me with the 7 X 7 Link Award.  The award gives you a chance to follow me down memory lane, reading or rereading seven of my posts that I think deserve tiny little awards of their own.  Then the excitement ramps up several notches as I fulfill the award requirement of pointing you toward seven blogs that will just make your day – maybe even your week!

If this award show were on television, now is when the overproduced musical interlude would fill seven painful minutes of your life that you would never get back.  But I believe in keeping it simple, so without further ado the winners are:

1) Most Beautiful Post – The writing may not be perfectly poetic but the subject is beautiful (with the pictures to prove it).  It was written at the beginning of my illustrious blogging career when only my sisters and somebody who got lost when googling recipes for strawberry pie read it.  Enjoy my Strawberry Ode.

2)  Most Popular Post – I know that it had the most comments not because it was the best writing but because I was taking part in a blogging challenge and others in the event came over to read it.  However, I’m proud of how the challenge pushed me to try my hand at poetry with Imago Populi, Imago Dei.

3)  Most Controversial Post – I can’t say that anything I’ve written has warranted an extreme range of opinions in the comments box.  Maybe I’ll try for that more in the future.  However, in the spirit of the category, find out why One Must Agitate.


4)  Most Helpful Post – I wish I didn’t have so much experience in this regard, but I offer lots of good tips on how to avoid becoming Down and Out in Paris.

5)  Most Surprisingly Successful Post – Although I’ve been doing the blog for a couple of years, I’ve only very recently learned how to gather and interpret all kinds of statistics regarding traffic for each post.  Imagine my shock when I found that The Joys of Flying Solo had received over 1000 views!  The comments, however, nowhere near that.  I guess it just goes to show that those little key words you see listed at the end of a post really do matter in search engines.

6)  Most Underrated Post – I think it’s worth another look.  If you’re in the mood for some Serendipity, give it a go.

7)  Most Prizeworthy Post --  Have you ever done battle with the disembodied voice of your GPS – in French?  Come with me on a ride through the French countryside in Tournez à Droite.

Here is a list of blogs I think deserve their own award.  They give me pause, give me a laugh, give me pleasure every week.  So give them all some love by clicking on them, reading, commenting.

Annie Off Leash – Observations about mid-life transition that sounds too familiar.

One Sister’s Rant – Adventures of Bella and her adorable dog, Roxy, with lots of laughs thrown in for good measure.  If you click on the link you’ll be taken to a bit of reality that can leave you rolling on the floor (literally).

An Improbable Life – Becky Green Aaronson tells fascinating background stories for her photojournalist husband’s luscious photos from around the world.

Turning the Page – Stacy Green has a bit of humor about the world, a few thoughts about writing, and my favorite, Thriller Thursday, where she uses her writing specialty of the supernatural to explore real people and events in the category of the macabre, violent crimes, and tales of the supernatural.

For the purposes of this award I’m really supposed to give you seven of my favorite blogs.  But I’m too radical for that.  I flaunt rules at every turn.  So instead of finishing out the list I’m going to turn my job over to you (no, it’s not late and I’m not too tired).  In the comments box post a link to a blog that you want us to fall in love with.  Open our eyes to an undiscovered gem.  And I would love it if you clicked on my own posts, above, and left your thoughts there as well.

I humbly accept this bouquet in recognition of my exciting award

Monday, November 14, 2011

In the Spirit of the Holiday, Just Say No to Black Friday Creep

A sign of the season in Dijon, France

I don’t know about you, but I started seeing signs of Christmas in the stores long before Halloween.  This weekend when driving through a small commercial stretch of a road in the suburbs I saw a store already outlined with Christmas garland.  I know that it might be an attempt to stay ahead of the cold weather (images of my father wrestling with Christmas lights during a dusting of early December snow), but still the holiday is coming earlier and earlier.

Make note in your history books that Black Friday creep officially begins this year.

Christmas competition (ahhh, what a wonderful holiday tradition) has taken full hold on this nation, so instead of Big Box retailers encouraging their customers to line up well before dawn for a 6 a.m. stampede and Early-Bird Sales, many chain stores have pushed the time even earlier.  They are opening at 4 a.m., midnight, even 10 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day!  I shop, therefore I am.

Of course, the executives who made this brilliant decision will not be the ones leaving their families, their warm hearths, their football games, and their pumpkin pie to prepare for this.  They say their employees get holiday pay, but how does that compare with the family time that they will be missing because they have to ready a store for the rushing hoards?  And in this challenging economic atmosphere, would any worker dare say to his or her employer, “I’m sorry.  I can’t be there Thanksgiving night because my family time is sacred.”  I’m beginning to wonder if there is anything that this country can’t turn into a chance to make or spend money.

Several years ago Brad and I were in Dijon during the fall and up to the beginning of December.  At the beginning of November on that trip I began to notice oversized blue and silver draping, red banners dotted with stars, and white crescent moons being strung high across the narrow streets in the historic part of town.  Sometimes, if I walked down a certain street just at dusk I’d be greeted – only for a moment – with all the decorations above me glowing brightly.  Then as quickly they’d go dark.  It was merely a testing of the lights.

My anticipation for the coming holiday grew each day as I’d pass by another square and see signs that the city had been at work there.  The shop windows may have displayed winteresque themes with snowflakes and silver stars, but Christmas had not yet arrived.  In Place de la Libération a small village of wooden huts was constructed.  In late November these little huts became the center of a temporarily-planted pine forest.  Trees bedecked with gold and red balls stood where just a couple of weeks before children had ridden bikes and families strolled on a Sunday afternoon.

It was a true Advent.  A true anticipation for the coming season.  I was not being blasted with safely secular or over-produced Christmas music in store after store.  The newspapers I bought were not weighted down with advertisements for all the Christmas goodies that show someone how much you loved them, like Elmo dolls or electric drills – 50% off!  Television did not have a marathon of holiday-themed commercials.  But when the glass walls of the market building were draped with a curtain of lights I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve.

We asked Brad’s Dijon colleague when all of this Christmas cheer would come to life and he said he wasn’t sure.  It would be sometime the weekend we were leaving because that would be the beginning of Advent, the liturgical start to the Christmas season.  With my weak French I thought I read in the local paper that something would be happening on Friday, the night before we left.

Not knowing what or where anything would happen, I dragged Brad out into the cold French night to the plaza with the carousel.  It seemed as likely a place as any for a Christmas event.  We hunkered down like all the locals at an outside table with hot wine and hot chocolate just before dusk, waiting for we didn’t know what.  It was a perfect holiday feeling.  Rosy-cheeked children bundled so only their eyes and nose showed rode the prancing horses and beautiful swans of the carousel.  Multi-generational families pushed strollers and chatted as they moved down rue de la Liberté.  Dijon residents laughed and drank at the sidewalk cafes before going off to dinner.

Then at seven o’clock on the mark, voilà, the entire town center lit up in a blaze of red and blue and silver lights.  Christmas came to Dijon in an instant.  Everyone stopped where they were and applauded their joy at the beauty that surrounded them.  A clarinet sounded in the distance as we followed the music to the temporary village in the temporary pine forest.  We bought hot cider at the wooden huts and swayed to the tunes of the strolling musicians.  I felt like it was a Christmas miracle that we had been there to experience the celebration.

I’ll think of that perfect Christmas feeling when Black Friday creep officially begins Thanksgiving night.  I hope that enough people might boycott this rampant commercialism with a “No thanks, I think I’ll just stay at home with my family where I belong” so that this becomes also the death knell for Black Friday creep.

Are you one of those who have always hit the sales in the dark morning hours the day after Thanksgiving?  What do you think of pushing it back to Thanksgiving night?  Or do you try your hardest to avoid all the commercial hype?  Share your thoughts in the comments box today.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Anatomy of a Migraine, or Thank Heavens for NCIS Marathons

Autumn windflowers give one last moment of relaxing beauty before cold comes

Two days in a fetal position on the couch with an elephant standing on my skull.  A migraine to end all migraines.  This one sneaks up on me, gets a head start while I’m sleeping so it was in full flower, past the opportune time to take my medicine.  Ice?  Heat?  A different pillow?  Close my eyes to the flashing lights that are really inside my head.  Turn down the television to a quiet murmur.  What will release the vise grip on my neck?  Can I outlast it or will this be the one that finally kills me?

But then the hallucinations start.  And the nausea.  I know I must be hallucinating because over and over again I hear the voice of Herman Cain talking about “false accusations” and “anonymous accusers.”  It’s just that one voice I hear over and over for hours as the vise tightens another notch.  “A troubled woman to make false accusations. . . .”  Surely it must be the pain talking.  In the 21st century women who make sexual harassment accusations surely are not still victims of the “slut or nut” portrayal by accused harassers and their supporters.

Perhaps the reason I seem to hear only Cain’s narrative in this hallucinatory migraine stage is because I keep fading in an out of consciousness.  That must explain why I don’t hear the women’s voices.  Surely it wouldn’t be because they were made to sign legal documents that forbid them ever to speak publicly about their unnerving encounter while the man with the money and power to circumscribe their female voices could face all the cameras and microphones he desired to declare every 30 minutes in the 24-hour news cycle that he did nothing wrong and doesn’t know what these crazy women are talking about.

Clearly this is the worst migraine delirium I’ve experienced in years.  It just won’t end.  What’s that?  A new voice enters my head, questioning the one-sided tale, bringing up the women, the accusers, that the presidential candidate has declared don’t exist and which he swears never to discuss.  The voice attempts to summon them, their stories, their voices in the midst of a debate.  But the mere mention of these “anonymous accusers” brings out ghosts of an alternative America offering a loud BOOOOO to the one who questions.  I hear the voices in a continuous loop in my head as I sweat and toss and seek relief from the pain throughout the night.

I finally fall into a fitful sleep wrapped in a blanket on the refuge of the couch.  Faithful dog by my side to alert me to any real evil in my world, not just the voices in my head. Then I turn again and, click, I hear a new voice about football and tradition and greatness and honor.

The last of the morning glories, beautiful and delicate

At one point I try to stand and move to see if I can clear my head of the voices.  However, a strong wave of nausea floods me at the light of the second day.  Nausea and voices whispering about sins of the fathers of deified college football programs.  Programs that had been worshipped as the shining moral compass within a corrupt sports universe.  My migraine triggers overwhelming nausea, leaving me spending day two hanging over my porcelain lifesaver even as the disembodied voices continue.

Through the fog of my pain and the frequent need to retch I hear a second narrative told with only one voice.  A voice witnessing acts of pedophilia yet remaining silent until the damage was done a dozen times over.  New names float in my dream state.  Paterno.  Sandusky.  McQueary.  A collective voice of rioters overturning cars and destroying property, not to speak with outrage for the silent and powerless victims but to raise on their shoulders the powerful who knew and said nothing, who did nothing.  Nausea engulfs my body as I hold my head and rock in an excruciating fever while the voices declare innocence behind a curtain of lawyers.

Far into day two of this migraine fog.  I roll over on the couch to see if the right side of my brain (which by now is clearly bleeding out of my ear) feels less pain when touching a pillow than the left, which is covered by a skullcap of a thousand tiny needles.  I open one eye to see some sun sliding in under the blinds and faithful Skyler still dead asleep at the base of the television cabinet.  I shift and feel something cold and metallic at my elbow.  Click.  The voices in my head shift.  Paterno. Click.  Cain. Click.  Sandusky. Click. Jethro Gibbs.

Gibbs?  Ahhh, the low-key, comforting voice of Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs, investigator in the Naval Criminal Investigation Service.  A voice I recognize.  This one I know for a fact isn’t real.  So I’m not hallucinating.  I’m listening to the beginning of an NCIS television marathon.  Something on which to rest my migraine-addled brain.  A world of right and wrong.  A world where the line between good and evil gets a fair workout.  Life is made up of 50 simple rules, like #3, “Don’t believe what you’re told.  Double check everything.”  In that fictional world a quick slap to the back of the head serves as a wake up call to do the right thing . . . now.

Ahhh, I feel my migraine floating away.  All the insane noise, the pain, the endless voices, the nausea it brought me.  I sink into my pillow.  Skyler snorts a little as she stretches and curls herself back onto her pillow, too.  We settle in to await the easing this overlong physical and mental disequilibrium.  For the next six hours I doze on the cushion of a blissful and secure NCIS marathon.  When I finally stand, pain and nausea free, I’m ready to believe again in a world where the good guys will win – eventually.

If you want to talk about your own migraine experiences, please feel free to share in the comments box.  Or, on a lighter side, tell us what are your final signs of autumn, whether in nature or something else.

 For your own fun, a montage of Jethro Gibbs' rules for living 

Monday, November 7, 2011

It's All About Me -- Not-So-Frequently-Asked-Questions

Red is my color.  Don't you agree?

Since today is my birthday I believe I’ll be audacious enough to write about myself.  Yes, I know.  It’s a shock since this blog rarely delves into the personal, what with its dedicated mission to discuss the higher issues of the day and all.  But indulge me.  Today (as a service to all my new readers) I’ll finally tackle that long list of  not-so-frequently-asked-questions that I’m sure have occurred to someone somewhere.

1) How old are you today?
Why bless your heart.  Thanks so much for asking.  Next question.

2) Are you related to anyone famous?
My full name is Julie Margaret Farrar.  Margaret is my maternal grandmother’s name.  She was a Sappington.  That may not mean much to you, but in St. Louis it used to mean a lot.  We were neighbors to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (unfortunately on the wrong side of the fence, Civil War speaking).  I drive around and see streets called Sutton/Sappington/Leffingwell.  We even have a cemetery with our name on it.  This morning I pointed to the sign for Sutton Ave. where the body shop where we took our car is located and said, “Hey, that’s me.  What kind of discount do I get for being so fabulously famous?”  He said “That and a thousand bucks will get your car repaired.”  Yes indeed, he did!  Just one of the perks of being so fabulously famous.  We even have a family homestead that is now a local museum.  However, after the Great Depression, our name didn’t mean much more than anybody else’s did, so I don’t get a discount at the museum café.

As for my surname, we have a whole town named after one of our ancestors in south Missouri.  As I heard it, they wanted a zip code and a post office real bad.  A Farrar was the only one in this rural region who actually lived in a “town” setting and could read to sort mail, so he offered to be the postmaster.  So the town called itself “Farrar, MO” because “Wherethehellarewe, MO” was too hard to spell.  It still exists.  Just barely.

Alas, I cannot claim kinship with the wonderfully talented Jay Farrar.

3) Why did you keep your own name when you married?

So my children-to-come would not have to admit they were related to me during our turbulent season of adolescence.  And now when I write anything embarrassing about them or me none of their friends will ever make the connection.

4) What have been your biggest regrets in life as you celebrate another birthday?

That curly perm I was rockin’ the year I met my husband and got married has to be up at the top of the list.

And not listening to my brilliant high school journalism teacher, Mr. Hall, when he begged me to continue on the newspaper instead of choosing to stick with orchestra when the schedules for the two classes came into conflict.  If I had listened to him you would be seeing my headshot on the Sunday New York Times opinion page instead of on this blog.  Not even practice, however, would have gotten me to Carnegie Hall.  When I made that realization one year into college, then I made an immediate course correction.  I quit music and started studying ancient Greek and medieval history.  Yes, really.  (Do you think I should add that to the regret column?)
Contemplating my future back on Avery Ct.

6) Have you been published anywhere but on your own blog?
If you’re cruising the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition (1996 edition), you’ve seen some of my best work.  And a friend at sewing group last week told me I write such wonderful thank you notes.  And I’ve actually been retweeted a few times.  With such a stellar publishing record I just don’t understand why no one’s beating down my door for my golden words.  Recently, however, as I’ve been connecting with more and more people online, I’ve read about this habit some “writers” have wherein they actually personally submit some of their golden words to people who work at magazines, literary journals, and book publishers.  And they don’t even include oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with the package.  Hmmmm.  Maybe I’ll try that technique before the year is over.  I’ll keep you posted.

7) What is your ultimate goal as a writer?
To have Meryl Streep portray me in the film adaptation of the memoir I’m working on (ok, well, not working today because it’s my birthday) about adopting and raising with my extremely brave husband our own two precious little Communists who will deny I’m their mother once it gets published (see question #3).

8) How many times have you tried to lose weight in the last five years?
Don’t be impertinent. 

9) What’s the best part about your birthday this year?
As always, the best part is sharing it with my daughter (yes, the exact same date).  Happy birthday, Sweetie (*waves*)!  It assures me that at least one person in the family will remember.  The next best part is that I went back to bed this morning (hence the extremely late posting today) because I was still in a coma from last night’s birthday dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, and Black Forest cake.

10)  What else should we know about you?
You tell me.  No, really.  Send me questions and I’ll answer them.  I’m sure you’re enthralled by my story up to now and are breathlessly awaiting a second installment.  As soon as I sort through the questions that I know will be pouring in I’ll post another FAQ page.

Send all your questions to the comments box.  Or answer for us one FAQ about yourself.

You can read other birthday posts here and here

Today’s blog post was sponsored by the writing prompts at Mama Kat’s world famous writing workshop.
10/3/11-what I'd do3

Friday, November 4, 2011

10 Things I Would Rather Do Than Give Another Minute of My Life to Kardashian News

Surely the story of this stone maiden of Flavigny-sur-Ozerain is more interesting than today's celebrity gossip

The world has tilted on its axis this week.  Front and center on every newscast and every homepage of online news sources is that a woman who is most famous for being famous (that, and the size of her backside, which I’m sure is the same number of inches as mine, even if mine might be shaped a bit differently), has ended her marriage before her guests even had time to pay off their Visa bills for the gifts they sent.

In the two weeks leading up to my surgery, I had made a pledge not to click on a single entertainment story online when I could be doing much more productive things.  In keeping track with my vow to donate to a church charity I was happy to find that I gave in to that temptation only eight times – less than 10 minutes total of celebrity comings and goings.  I felt so clean, so free, so productive not knowing which homeless shelter rejected Lindsay Lohan as a volunteer for not being a good role model, which starlet is or is not paired up with which young gun, which old-enough-to-know-better celebrity is making a fool of him or herself, or which movie that cost the GDP of a small nation to make tanked at the box office.

Unfortunately, in the doldrums of recovery when I couldn’t be too active or do anything much more strenuous than work the remote control for the TV, I fell back into the trap.  But no more!  I have a birthday coming up, which means one less year on this planet.  I may not have met some of my goals yet, like hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back up, publishing a book, or fitting back into the size 8 of my youth, but I’ll never achieve anything if I give one more minute to celebrity gossip.

So here are 10 things I’d rather do than spend time on another Kim Kardashian (or any celebrity) news exclusive:

10) Eat brussel sprouts

9)  Wear lime green horizontal stripes

8)  Scrub and sterilize by hand the trash cart in the alley behind our house

7)  Stick a greasy, putrid shish kabob skewer into one ear and shove it through until it comes out the other side.

6)  Sit topless on a beach in the south of France in a g-string, with my meno-pot, hysterectomy scar, and all my pasty-white self hanging out.

5)  Attend a Justin Bieber-Taylor Swift double-bill concert, placing myself front and center in a mosh pit of pre-teens delirious with Bieber Fever and swinging their heads full of Swift wannabe curl extensions.

4)  Climb Mt. McKinley carrying only just a power bar and some Red Bull.

3)  Encase myself, neck to knees, in super-strength Spanx and then chug a gallon of warm water before sitting down to watch the entirety of Wagner’s Ring Cycle without intermission.

2)   Operate heavy machinery while under the influence of cold medicine.

1)  Give my true weight on my driver’s license.

Do you have anything to add to my list?  Or is there something you want to say to convince me of the value of knowing the situation with The Situation?  Please share with us in the comments box.
The story of the parents who incited this cemetery "souvenir" is more worth my time than the celebrity flavor-of-the-month.  It says "The book of Life is the Book Supreme.  We cannot close or cover its choices.  One would like to return to the page that he loves and the page where one dies is already under our fingers."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

What I Read -- Gift From the Sea

A new treasure made from gifts from the sea on Sanibel Island, FL

“What is the shape of my life?”

Before I went into surgery last month, one of my readers suggested I use recovery time to read Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea.  Since exactly a year ago that same week in October I had been sitting on a beach in Florida, collecting my own seashells, and enduring horrible arm pain during two kayaking trips that made it even clearer I needed surgical intervention, I thought the suggestion was rather auspicious.

When I dug out my used copy I found stuck in the pages the pencil I had used to mark words to live by from my first reading.  Hardly anything was underlined, though.  Why?  It’s a small book.  Why hadn’t I finished it?  Had I first entered Lindbergh’s quiet world at a time that I had so much noise in my life I couldn’t hear what she was saying?  Or did her words just not speak to me? Rather than simply starting where my pencil indicated I had left off, I went back to the beginning.

Lindbergh began the book during a brief sabbatical at the beach in order to think about her pattern of living, i.e, her own balance of life, work, and relationships.  At first she assumed her own reflections on the shells – the gifts from the sea – that she found during her daily walks would apply only to her life.  However, she learned through conversations that many men and women in all strata of life were occupied with the same question she had asked herself: What is the shape of my life?

Each chapter focuses on a particular type of shell that becomes a trope for exploring her life as a woman, a wife, a mother.  She sets up her argument with the channelled whelk, representing simplicity in life that seems to elude her and most women.  “Distraction is, always has been, and probably always will be, inherent in woman’s life.”  I snapped to attention.  Wasn’t this what I had lamented myself in a less poetic way when I explored decision fatigue?

“She wants perpetually to spill herself away.  All her instinct as a woman – the eternal nourisher of children, of men, of society – demands that she give.”

In her chapter on the moon shell Lindbergh offers the German word “Zerrissenheit” – torn-to-pieces-hood – to illustrate how centrifugal force pulls her and other women every which way, causing us to lose our balance or risking shattering us.  How do we maintain our individual center in the midst of marriage and other relationships?  How do we continue to flower in the “afternoon” of our lives?  For her, alone time as well as a creative life were essential.  She found that beauty was better able to bloom in empty space.  She chose to bring home not every shell she found (her “surfeit of treasures”) but just those she could fit in her pocket.

“We tend not to choose the unknown which might be a shock or a disappointment or simply a little difficult to cope with.  And yet it is the unknown with all its disappointments and surprises that is the most enriching.”

I reached this point in Lindbergh’s little devotional on the same day that my sister got me out of the house to see the independent film The Way, written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen.  In the story, the recently widowed father takes on the challenge of finishing a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St. James) that the son had only begun when dying in an accident one day into his journey (learn about the film and watch an interview with father and son here).  Before taking off for Spain they argue about the son’s lack of roots or achievements.  The son chides his father on the limits he had placed on his own life by comfortable conventions.  “This is the life I chose,” the father says.  “You don’t choose a life, Dad.  You live one,” his son replies.

When the father shoulders his dead son’s backpack and begins the 500-mile trek of forced simplicity along a trail that has carried pilgrims for a thousand years, he embodies Lindbergh’s conclusion.  The pilgrimage allows him time to center himself as well as offers the enriching opportunity to reach out to people and situations new and strange.  Lindbergh does not imply we must abandon our daily routine to achieve the sense of peace she has after her two-week pilgrimage to the beach.  We just need to be conscious of the questions she’s asking – of the value of simplicity and aloneness, the wealth found in a creative spirit, the importance of the here and now.  This time Lindbergh’s every word spoke to me.

“When we start at the center of ourselves, we discover something worthwhile extending to the periphery of the circle.”

What allows you to find that center?  Is it an activity, a book, a mantra?  Please share in the comments box what grounds you when centrifugal forces are stretching you ever thinner.

Do you find yourself too often going in the same direction as the crowd?  What sets you to flight?

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