Digesting the Holidays

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Prague Astronomical Clock by Yelkrokayade, CC 2.0.

Are holidays ever as carefree as we expect? For as long as we’ve been married, Thom and I have spent Christmas at the old family house where his mother and aunt live. They are now both experiencing memory and physical issues, and this year’s visit was alarming, sad, and stressful at multiple levels.

I packed as I always do for the trip – a book plus my Kindle, some crocheting, a pad of paper for anything I need to write, some work, my laptop – but hardly touched any of that. There was a lot to deal with and at the end of each day I was exhausted. There was no mental space to be creative or studious.

So it was fortuitous that the weather made us drive home a day early, giving us an entire weekend before the return to work. Freezing rain, sleet, and snow kept us at home for the first day, but luckily our pantry and freezer can always yield some meals without fresh inputs. The coziness of home was a perfect antidote for the chaos, clutter, and stress of our trip.

No one ever knows what a new year holds, but after realizing the full situation of my in-laws (which had not been apparent in phone calls) and how much their mental status has changed since our visit 6 months ago, this year feels more uncertain than usual. In addition to the emotional pain of watching the slow march of dementia, their care is likely to require multiple roadtrips and unanticipated financial support.  The other big question mark of this year will be Mari’s college decisions – where, what, how, and, of course, how much… cost.

I’m not a New Year resolutions maker. I usually try to make change whenever motivation strikes, and that is rarely after our big holiday road trip. But in light of the mental, emotional, and physical reserves that I expect to draw on this year, I have already begun some lifestyle improvements.  My goal is to make my brain more resilient to the aging process now, building habits that will make a big difference today and in the future. I do not want to experience the memory loss that I see in my mother-in-law, who completely forgot two conversations that we had on separate days. I also do not want Mari to be burdened with caring for me in a few decades when she should be building her own adulthood. I watched my parents care for my Oma, who lived with dementia for at least 10 years, during which she slowly lost her memories and her personality.

Some years ago I ran across an article that detailed improvement from various phases of dementia in 10 specific patients. It was a remarkable finding because, as most people are aware, there is no drug that can do this, and no protocol had previously been found to delay or improve dementia. At the time this caught my eye because a cousin was noticing the beginning of dementia in her mother, so I saved the article and sent it to her.

I found that article and reviewed it. Turns out the author is Dale Bredesen, who published the book The End of Alzheimer’s a couple years ago (along with another peer-reviewed article of research findings). I’m reading the book now, but the article was a good head start. I already had a fairly healthy lifestyle, and, like most people, knew where improvement could be made, but this is extra motivation to improve my sleep, diet, exercise, and habits. It turns out that weighing a little less isn’t enough for me to avoid sugar, but avoiding dementia is.

Today will be a beautiful day, sunshine on fresh snow, time with family and close friends. A perfect way to begin a new year.

A Perfect Day

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I had a perfect little day yesterday.  I was and am overflowing with gratitude.

First, I got to sleep in, then putz around the house unhurried and buying my husband a Xmas gift that I think he will love online for a great discount.  (I have a conflicted opinion of Black Friday, but I do like to take advantage on items I’d planned to get anyway).

After that, we cleaned up/put away the fall decor items and got out the Christmas tree and decorations, and set about getting that all ready to decorate later in the day.  The kids were soooooo excited to see the Xmas stuff come out again, especially their books.

Then we packed up our kiddies and goodies and headed to my sister’s for a belated Thanksgiving of delicious and simple foods, games and play.  I made my family do an activity where we wrote down what we were thankful for and had to guess who’d written it.  We laughed really hard.  I kept them for a future year to look back on, though I’ll admit that may be wishful thinking!

We came home and finished the decorating (which is adorably lopsided), had a yummy leftovers supper and the kids went to bed with zero fuss in my big bed snuggled up on either side of me.  And miraculously, I didn’t fall asleep myself, but just drank in those little bodies snoring there next to me.

I headed downstairs and decided I’d do some crafting, so I got out my Pandora and earbuds and fancy paper from when I actually scrapbooked and all the photos of why I want to lose weight that I printed weeks ago and got my creativity on.  And doing so revealed a big aha!  I don’t necessarily want to lose weight for the loss of the weight itself.  I want to lose it so I can be active, mobile, adventurous for a long time to come.  But I can have activity and adventure now.  And I’ll only achieve the mobility part if I DO have activity now.  I don’t have to wait to lose one more pound.  So today, I went to yoga.

And to top it off, I got lost in the rest of a book and couldn’t put it down until I’d finished.  I had to hide in the bathroom to finish it, but it was worth it.  And since it was a YA novel, I didn’t have to stay up all night to get my lost-in-a-book feeling.

BEST. DAY. EVER.

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My yummy book

 

Imagining

Autumn on the Oberg Mountain Hiking Trail Loop, Minnesota
The view I imagine while stuck in traffic.  Image: Autumn on the Oberg Mountain Hiking Trail Loop, Minnesota by Tony Webster, CC BY-SA 2.0.

I popped Mari’s well-worn CD of Anne of Green Gables into the car stereo this morning and from the first lines was whisked to a comfortable home in my memory. My mom bought this book for me when I traveled with my aunt at the age of 9. Once I got through the wordy descriptions in the first page, I was hooked. I finished it and immediately began reading it again. I read the series countless times over the years, continuing to read it into adulthood on occasion. The books have always been an escape for me; I recall taking an Anne book and my lunch to a park near my engineering job, sitting under a tree and reading to forget work stress for a while.

It was a pleasant way to spend the commute – listening to L.M. Montgomery’s loving descriptions of the natural beauty of Avonlea, every sentence a mark of her craft. The activities of the characters were a reminder of the world pre-technology. Anne fantasized about living near a babbling brook and spending the night in a wild cherry tree; she didn’t spend all her hours with earbuds and a smartphone. Rachel Lynde observed everything that happened in the neighborhood because she wasn’t parked in front of a TV. An 8-mile horse-driven buggy drive was a pleasure, not a time-sucking chore as it can be today in a much faster car. I’m sure there will be a million more examples; I’m only on chapter 2.

For many years, it was my fantasy to live far from the bustle of cities and suburbs, in a country cottage with a large garden and abundant physical and mental space. My parents moved to such a place when I was in college, and on my occasional visits I loved the sounds of the owls at night and roosters and cows early in the morning, the always changing landscapes of the Shenandoah foothills, and the lack of busy-ness. Oh, there was lots to do: painting outbuildings, harvesting berries, making jam, weeding, hanging laundry, painting the long stretches of fences – but there was also time to climb into the hills and marvel at the views, to enjoy a visit with the sociable barn cat, or to just think. For about a decade until upkeep became too much work for my aging parents, it was a much-loved refuge for me from the various cities in which I lived.

When, as of late, I begin to feel a real need for that refuge, I know that I need to step back and reconsider commitments. When home feels less like a cabin and more like a hotel, I know I am too busy. Recently, the fantasies of moving to the country resurfaced, and I asked myself why. It’s been a busy few weeks back to work and school, and we’re all still adjusting: we will adjust. I have given myself the position of always-willing-to-drive mother for Mari and her friends; while this can take a lot of time, there are benefits, such as knowing they are all safe, and the opportunities for conversation in the car. This is also temporary and will likely ease by the end of the winter; after her friends have navigated Minnesota winter roads, I will be more likely to consider them safe drivers.

When I was finishing my grad degree, I realized I had always been waiting for the next stage. As a young child, like many kids, I always wanted to be older. In high school, I couldn’t wait to get to college. The rapid, always-changing pace of college suited me, but I was eager to finish. The summer job I had between college and grad school was perfect in that within a few weeks I was ready to be a student again. And then I was done — I moved across the country and I was on my own… to discover that the grass was not as green as I had expected.  After a couple of years I just wanted out of the corporate world. I realized that there was always something to be finished, always something new to begin that probably wasn’t going to match my expectations.

The stress of this time will pass, and I will have some fond memories of it. Doing what I can now to make each day enjoyable for all of us will give us each a better time now and better memories in the future. And part of making every day better for all of us means giving myself more breaks.

A year ago I read the idea of a “20-minute daily vacation” in Laura Vanderkam’s Off the Clock.  It’s time to implement it!

Zucchini Pancakes

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My mom and I both enjoy cooking and cookbooks alike, and as our elders have passed, their cookbooks have found a new home on her shelves or mine.  Today’s pancakes were modified from the “Favorite Pancakes” in the 1950 edition of Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, courtesy of my maternal grandmother.

Zucchini Pancakes
(Makes about 12 3″ pancakes)

1 egg
1 1/4 c sour milk
2 T canola oil
1 1/4 c whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 t baking soda
1 t sugar
1 t baking powder
1/4 t salt
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
1 c shredded zucchini, dried on a towel

Beat egg well, then beat in milk and oil.  On top of liquid ingredients, add flour through nutmeg, then stir the dry ingredients together gently.  Mix dry and wet ingredients and then stir in shredded zucchini.  Cook on hot, oiled griddle or skillet.

My mom learned about Sammeltassen from my Oma, her mother-in-law: individual place settings for coffee from assorted patterns, with a cup, saucer, and dessert plate from each.  It was always fun for me to choose the plate on which I would eat from Oma’s china cabinet.  I think this particular plate survived more household moves than its cup and saucer.  The Sammeltassen is making its way to my house now, as my parents slowly downsize, and although I do not have the energy to use dishes that require hand washing on a daily basis, I do pull them out fairly regularly.  I don’t know if Mari will have fond memories of them, but I hope that she will.  I’m one of the few remaining people who remember my Oma’s kitchen, but I think of her every day as I work in my kitchen, and I hope to one day observe Mari continuing those traditions in her own home.

Shared with Weekend Cooking

Terra Incognita

forest_path_stoneyman_trail_shenandoah_national_park_virginia_usa_trees_outdoors-530679.jpg!dIt was nearly a year ago that I sat on a porch in Ithaca, NY, listening to the evening and not needing to be doing anything. Those non-busy moments are really rare, but I’m having another one tonight. I’m again traveling, visiting my best friend from forever, my first solo vacation in years. At the moment she’s working out at the gym, and I am sitting on her lovely deck, surrounded by flowers and trees taller than you’ll ever see in Minnesota, listening to a constant chorus of insects and birds.

It’s bittersweet, though. It’s partially solo because Mari has finally reached the time of teenagerdom when she would rather Thom and I were somewhere else, all the time – rather like the Peanuts parents, completely invisible. Despite that, I think she had some homesickness, being at her first away-from-home camp this week, and the joy of seeing my friend is compounded by the relief that I am completely distracted from worry most of the time (save 3A.M.).

I haven’t done much writing at all for several months. I thought the summer break would give me time to contemplate and peruse and think, but here it is 60% over and there’s been only a handful of thoughtful moments. There’s been visits to my family, to Thom’s family, a little sightseeing that included several waterfalls and some beautiful hiking, a much-anticipated musical, lots of driving to and fro, gardening, walking, and all the usual responsibilities. There was some pizza on the grill, reading with my unofficial therapy cat, and a little kayaking.  Time speeds by. I knew of all those plans and summer routines, but to be honest the main thing that kept me from prioritizing thinking time was mostly useless: Worry.

I worried a fair amount when Mari was younger. Toddlers often seem bent on killing themselves in one way or another, and then there are all the various illnesses, and as they grow there are different things to worry about. But for us, the tween and early teen years were about as close to carefree as I think we’ve been. And now they’re gone, and replaced with worries that I should have anticipated but did not. So many things to worry about with teens, and so difficult to find the right amount of rules, guidance, assistance.

This transition has been so strong in our household that it feels like the healthy and mindful habits that I worked to build over the years have evaporated for all of us. We have lost equilibrium.

My priority for the remainder of my break is to regain my own balance, and to be patient as Mari continues to whirl out of balance. The most difficult part of my job is to trust that she will find it, that the support, love, ideals, and principles we have lived will stay with her, and that she will be safe until the spinning stops.

Brunch on the Patio Plans

It’s a grey, slushy Saturday 2 days post April blizzard, my husband has been with my father-in-law at the clinic all day, and I’m needing happy, sunny thoughts of friends and summer.  So!  I’m going to “plan out loud” right here on the blog.

I’ve been missing a lot of longtime friends in the time since our littles have come along.  Many of them already had their own littles, or have had some since as well.  We have a fantastic back yard with a great deck and now a huge play structure!  So!  I was thinking a few months ago, why do we always stress out about a restaurant that we have to figure out where to go, where to park, and entertain the kids instead of talking and enjoying each other, all at the cost of approximately $1,000,000 for the meal?  We could be enjoying our backyard on unlimited time, a far cheaper meal, and the kids don’t even have to behave.

That time has come!

I want to have a menu that is the same every time, to save on stress, mainly.  The easier this is, the more likely it will be to happen.

I polled the members of a local women’s group about a set menu for friend brunches on the patio.  Requirements:  some kind of main that is gluten free (for me), and pretty much otherwise – just easy.  I posed the idea of an egg bake and they riffed on it.  These lovelies came up with tons of scrumptious ideas for meatless or meat-full, and other customizable ideas like fruit and yogurt parfaits.

Egg bake ideas:

  • With hashbrowns for the “crust” so it’s GF – saute the hashbrowns before adding egg & baking
  • Mushroom, asparagus & gruyere
  • Bacon, cheddar & chives
  • Veggie only for vegetarians, breakfast meats on the side
  • Sausage, onions & peppers with or without cheese
  • Tex Mex egg bake
  • Cheesy Croissant Brunch Bake with caramelized onion, brown sugar ham, sauteed spinach, cheese, and croissant crust (though I’d omit that for GF purposes)
  • Biscuits & gravy egg bake
  • Baked eggs with tomato, cottage cheese, Monterey Jack or Colby cheese, broccoli or spinach

Side dish ideas:

  • Cut fruit
  • Bread
  • Yogurt granola cups – bake the granola in the bottom of a muffin cup and top with yogurt, or just have yogurt with a bag of granola and some little bowls/cups
  • Mimosas & bloody bar
  • Baked bacon

 

 

 

Thoughts on Planning

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I’m feeling a need to do some reflecting on the practice of planning.

I am a member and/or current devotee of three main personal growth programs.  First, The Life Coach School’s Self Coaching Scholars program (owned by Brooke Castillo) which has a monthly mindset focus.  Secondly, the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, a year long cohort program to help teachers maximize their time to find peace and be more efficient.  I’ve completed the year but it is so dense and amazing I have rejoined the Graduate program to eek out more value.  Last, I also closely follow Phit N Phat, a weight loss coaching program whose Queen Corinne trained with The Life Coach School, so the philosophies are similar.  While these programs may vary in topic, there is a strong thread connecting them:  effective, intentional PLANNING.

I hate to think of all the years I wasted pursuing a willy nilly approach.  And really, I actively pursued it.  In fact, in college I was a good planner, kind of natural.  The problem was that I also overdid it.  I overpacked my days and I got shit DONE.  I was in a go-go-go mode from about 18-25 years old.  Folks, no one should be burned out at 25.  So I turned to voluntary simplicity readings and study.  And I started cancelling things.  And scheduling less.  And slowing, and flowing.  And often, not planning anything.  And some of that was a gift – until sometimes it wasn’t.  Because in teaching, you can’t really just wing it.  And I tried.  (My poor students.)  I even left the classroom, thinking in a coaching role I could be less regimented with time during my workday.  It was somewhat true, but I also felt I was doing nothing many days.

Once I had kids, I started to really realize I had to make some changes.  I HATED planning meals, planning activities (especially on the weekends), planning basically anything.  And what that got me was being on childcare duty all the time, because my husband DID make plans, and have ideas of what he wanted to accomplish in a weekend, and since I didn’t, he went ahead and did his thing.  And I didn’t like that.  I was also rushing, frantic, and unprepared most of the time at work and at home.  I had to make a change.

It started about a year ago, first with the 40HTW Club.  I was also part of a mandatory coaching program that all probationary educators go through at work, so there was a huge focus on planning there.  We grouped our tasks by time periods (before school, mid day, after school, evening) instead of making strict appointments for each task.  We identified the main task to be done in order to do it first to feel the pride and reduced stress around having that done.  And that started to work!

In the spring, I found Phit N Phat and started planning what I would eat the next day and evaluate how well I’d stuck to the current day’s plan.  And I started to lose weight!

I was starting to like planning again!  It was getting me results, reducing my stress . . . then came September.

I joined Self Coaching Scholars six months ago and the whole focus of one month – September – was to plan out an “impossible” task per Brooke’s scheduling and planning system.  Basically, in this system you break down the whole task, you schedule every component into a set time, and you don’t allow yourself to exceed the time scheduled.  So I did this.  I scheduled the whole ambitious task for the month, and right away realized I hadn’t planned enough time in each slot, and also who-knows-what happened with the kids and I started to miss slots (ANATHEMA to the approach because really, that’s not honoring myself and my word) and got hopelessly behind and did NOT accomplish my planned goal.  So instead of having the desired effect, which was that we would build a ton of confidence and buy in for the planning system, it had the opposite effect for me, which was to confirm for me what I had been (mis)thinking for years – that planning is hard, that it is impossible to follow a plan, and that if you have kids you can forget even trying to have a plan.

I kind of threw up my hands on all personal planning, but did stick to the work stuff.  Thank God, because one day in October or November, I had nothing to do.  Unheard of.  I was caught up.  I was planned ahead.  And I knew I had to revisit planning once more for myself and my outside-of-work dreams.

Well, a few months later, I am realizing I perhaps overdid it in September.  I think I tried to do WAY too much, and didn’t acknowledge my limitations.  I have a new “impossible” goal, and I want to keep making progress toward it, even if in baby steps.  So I’m studying Brooke’s approach further.  She advocates:  scheduling your free time FIRST.  So one thing where I was mistaken in September was that I scheduled the whole month solid – not only did I choose that “impossible” task but it was our first month back in school!  What was I thinking?!  Ok, so now, there will be no scheduling of anything after bedtime.  It just won’t get done.  Or in the morning before school.  And, I don’t want to work all weekend on regimented stuff.  So that will be protected too.

One confusion I have looking forward is that also in Brooke’s system is that you weekly do a brain dump of all the to-dos rattling around in there, and then you schedule time on your calendar to do it throughout the week.  And then you throw away the brain dump list.  Well, I did my first one and cleared out SEVEN PAGES of to-dos.  I can’t do that all in a week – so then what?  Do I put it all back in my brain?  So another part of my planning evolution is that I need to make it work for me, not blindly adhere to any guru’s approach.  So, I need to have a running to-do list bank for a while until I whittle it down/eliminate some stuff from it.  That’s ok.  I will do that.  I had one going that I hadn’t updated in a while and so it must be time to do that if I had seven pages worth in there!

I think my very biggest thought work and logistics item is where to actually find time to do anything beyond my 8-4 and co-run the household.  We have two young children, and three aging parents – and two of them live an hour away.  I have an autoimmune disorder that is under great control right now and sleep is paramount in maintaining that.  My personal goals feel so insignificant in comparison to this day to day pressure.  I am puzzled about where to find more time.  I may add an afternoon a week of after school care for my oldest who is at my school so I can have an hour to do some business work.  I may do a go-out session every weekend to get some focused work time on it.  So I have a few ideas, but they involve escaping my family, so I don’t feel great about that.  But I also think it could be preferable to what I’m doing now, which is trying to sneak time, diverting my attention from them, parking the kids in front of the TV, and really getting not much of anything done anyway in the end.

Also, I need to make the weekly scheduling process inviolable.  If I reference my brain, my bank of tasks and actually DO make a realistic weekly schedule, I WILL start to honor it, make progress, reduce the amount of pending items, and feel better overall.

I’ll keep you updated!  Thanks for reading my novel!  It helped to write it.