Gratitude Check

Some days are more difficult than others, living in this messy, broken world.

Just before heading to bed last night, Guy turned on the evening news and heard that the little girl, missing for days in his hometown, had been found dead. The suspect? A 15-year-old neighbor. Tragedy times two, two broken childhoods.

Quietly, I slipped into Tween’s room as he slept. I laid down next to him, caressed his face, kissed him gently, prayed and cried. The girl’s mama couldn’t cuddle her baby, couldn’t feel the soft whisper of breath on her cheek. The boy’s mama? I can’t even imagine. And they’re not alone; how many mamas are brokenhearted today? Tween rolled over, content in dreamland, as I uttered, Thank you, God, thank you!, and left him to rest.

We awoke this morning to learn that the sirens we heard last night were in response to a fire at our friends’ house. As I always do when I hear sirens I prayed: Thank you, God, for sending help. And thankfully everyone is okay, but their young kids are understandably scared. This makes two local families who have had fires in the last two weeks. Stuff lost, hassles in progress. It could be worse, but it’s bad enough.

Another mama whispered her feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness. And the shame that comes with knowing just how blessed you are and still feeling wildly out of sorts. Head and heart disconnect and she’s not alone. We hear the shattered voices in our head, know our own aches and pains, and compare that with others’ beautiful exteriors. Our cell phones keep silent, not because we’ve silenced them, and we think no one is thinking of us. We lose in comparison, even as we know we shouldn’t compare because we will always lose that insidious game.

Some days the brokenness becomes too obvious, too overwhelming. How do we respond?

Writer Kristi Atkinson encourages: “Everything that happens in the world is an opportunity for us to move in love towards God and others.” She wrote a helpful article on praying the news. As we pray, we seek to connect with God’s heart for a hurting world. Then God directs us how to move forward in love, whether that means more prayers or tangible assistance.

And we give thanks because…

thankful

@Ann Voskamp

Even if the something isn’t directly related to the heart ache, and maybe some days it cannot be directly related to the heart ache, we can unearth some reason to be grateful: the air we breathe, a new green shoot of life bearing witness, even the beating of the heart which can be broken.

So, for today, here’s my partial list: a new book I’m reading with Tween; a hot summer day and a house that stays (mostly) cool; the noise of boys playing; sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon; easy, healthy food; daily posts of pictures from the week-long camp Teen is attending; time to draw a silly picture I will mail to Teen; the ability to help as help is needed; our small town that generously responds to others’ needs; health; so much love.

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Generous and Free

warning

Warning: Reading the Bible can lead to unexpected changes in behavior.

“Good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice.” Psalm 112:5 NIV

I read this verse in the morning, as I often do, and asked God what He wanted to say. I reflected on our recent generosity; we’re cleaning out the garage and donating wildly to two of our favorite local mission partners, one that ministers primarily to poor children while the other ministers to homeless men. We’ve given sports equipment, games, school supplies, clothes, and home goods. In addition, just last week a home in our small town burned to the ground and the family lost everything. We came up with a stack of clothes from our closets that might fit this family of four, at least one item brand new with tags.

Yet I suspected that wasn’t God’s point in giving me Psalm 112:5. So I waited.

picnic

On our way to one of our favorite Date Night activities, a picnic and a play, we stopped by the market to pick up dinner. Around the corner from the front door was a man with a sign: “Lost my job. Help me feed my family.” His family sat on a nearby ledge. We kept walking.

As we entered the market, I might as well have bumped into a brick wall labeled “generous.” Though I couldn’t remember the rest of the verse, that one word resounded in my ears, bounced around my brain like a physical pain. So as we bought our picnic we bought this family their own picnic.

I’m not writing this to toot our own horn. Honestly, friends, I felt like I didn’t have much choice in the matter. I got to carry out God’s direction.

I’m sure they expected we’d avoid eye contact again, but this time we handed the family a box of fresh Caesar salad and a loaf of artisanal bread along with plastic flatware and napkins. You’d have thought we’d presented them with the king’s own feast. Their faces lit up, betraying their true hunger. I looked into the eyes of this beautiful teenage girl close in age to my own kids, this mama and papa humbled by hard times.

Psalm 112:5 promises “Good will come…” That wasn’t my motivation, but I will tell you this: the good came as the young girl looked at me and said, “God bless you.” I need nothing more.

Checking In

Do you know what it is to feel the light of love inside you?
And all the darkness falls away
If you feel the way I feel then I believe we have the answer
I’ve been searching for tonight
–Dave Matthews, “Shake Me Like a Monkey”

Mendo

He took me to the coast, this Guy who knows and loves me well.

Teen and Tween are at Scout camp this week. Both kids, same camp, all week long – miss them but, woo hoo!

Guy didn’t need to book a Mendocino ocean-front B&B. We could have enjoyed our very own quiet house. We could’ve made happy progress on cleaning out the garage or finally sprucing up the backyard (seriously, we’re stoked on these projects). We could have made dinner together and rented a DVD, or gone out to dinner and a movie sans kid-consideration.

But he knows that the sun-streaked blue-and-tan view of ocean-meets-sand, the salty-musky beach smell, the crash-and-slick of waves, the salt-sticky whip of my hair in sea-breeze and crunch of sand between my toes, they heal my little cracks and fill me up with peace, with joy.

As we dashed out the door I grabbed a new-to-me book: John Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Recommended to me by friends, I’ll say this: if you are married, go right now and order this book! I’d read the first four chapters on my own, but each of the seven principles chapters includes exercises to do/discuss. As Guy drove I peppered him with questions – some we answered about each other (“I think the current stressors in your life are…”) and others we answered for ourselves (“I am most proud of xyz accomplishments in my life”). We talked about childhood and adulthood, life before and after marriage and kids, our worries and joys and hopes. We laughed and reminisced and got serious on things that matter. Talk about checking in with each other, whew, this was Marriage Intensive 101 and, thank-God-hallelujah, 20+ years of marriage and we still pass with beautiful flying colors.

About an hour into the almost four-hour drive, we stopped at Russian River Brewing Co, my brother’s favorite and a place we’d never been. The gal seated next to me at the bar instantly struck up conversation and I’m so glad she did! While we sipped and waited for food, this East Coast darling confessed that she and her husband travel to California at least once a year for their favorite beer. The chatter wound leisurely this way and that, surprising in its ease, and we happily exchanged contact info before we departed.

At last we checked in at the Sandpiper House Inn in Elk, California. Our host Craig pointed us to our room and back out to the beach, where we delightedly drenched ourselves in late afternoon sun. As we walked north to beach end, and then south again, stepping over and around the bull kelp curlicuing the beach, we thought we heard music, maybe horns. Until we spotted a trio of young adults, two men and a woman, who had industriously turned the bull kelp into musical instruments, like shofars calling us to our beach-side Sabbath rest. Later we saw them kelp-jump-roping – Sabbath is also laughter and fun.

seaweed

Dinner: we talked with Craig, scanned the local paper, drove through heritage-town Mendo, and finally landed at The Ravens, a vegan restaurant at The Stanford Inn (no kidding, spooky-populated with a conspiracy of ravens as we drove in). If you like veggie/vegan food, this restaurant is for you. If you think you don’t, won’t, never will like veggie/vegan food, this restaurant is a MUST! Oh. My. Word! The ceviche might be the most surprising bite we’ve ever eaten – so tangy-tequila tasty, crafted from cauliflower and mushrooms instead of seafood. And the warm bread served with cauliflower-basil-cilantro “butter” – mouth watering. This will go down in our history as a milestone meal.

I awoke early to glorious light, sun-on-water on the Most Amazing View reflecting on pale-blue-turned-bright-white wallpaper. Guy slept in. He never sleeps in, a testament to restorative sea air, a comfortable bed, and his need to unwind. I soaked in the view. Gradually the fog crawled its way across the water, dampened the light, and I got up.

Early coffee service and, wouldn’t you know it?, the Inn had one of our very own 20+-years-of-marriage china tea cups which I filled chock-to-the-brim with hot, black coffee. We walked down to the cliffs, pausing to pet the twin Tabby rescue cats (one of which was hell-bent on guarding a gopher hole), admiring hummingbirds buzzing amidst garden along the path. Craig made a crazy-good breakfast of French toast with blueberries, accompanied by classic 70’s rock. We chatted with another Bay Area couple as we watched Turkey Vultures soaring over the cliffs. Did you know that, unlike most birds, Turkey Vultures have a keen sense of smell and can smell fresh carrion up to a mile away? Google over breakfast – sometimes a good thing.

As for me, I put away my phone. I didn’t check email or social media for two days; I even resisted the temptation to review iPhone pictures lest I feel “the need” to post immediately. I’ve realized that, half-over, I’m not as relaxed as I’d hoped to be this summer. I’ve cut back my at-work schedule but frittered away too much in-between time on social media and nonsense instead of intention. I want to be Present, capital P on Purpose. Last summer in Costa Rica, new culture + shock, we had little choice but to live purposefully hour-to-hour, day-to-day. This summer, at-home-“usual,” it’s easy to let moments slip, let days slide into nothing-done, nothing-gained.

Sometimes a surprise is the *shock* one needs to reflect, remember, restore.

We hiked along foggy Point Arena, so mist-covered we couldn’t see the newly-named National Monument lighthouse and closest California point to Hawaii. Lanky golden grass shivered in the sea breeze, as did we. We drove north to Fort Bragg and dug deep in a festival of sea glass. We grabbed a quick sandwich lunch and headed home, our only regret that our getaway ended too soon.

seaglassWe could have stayed home. Instead we created memories. Guy made the better choice, and we are better for it. Thank you, my love!

Which Way Do I Go?

writingCalling all creatives!

I have a serious question to ask:

What do you do when you’ve lost your mojo? When you’ve gotten out of sync with your own rhythm, lost your own groove?

I’m part-way through a project I’m pretty excited about. Well, I’m part-way through the first part, but that’s something, isn’t it? It’s a beginning, and there could be no middle or ending without it. I put off the beginning, the starting of said project, for far too long (read: years!) because it felt too big, too scary, too TOO. You know?

But then I began and I had to hurry-up buckle-up because ZOOM off we went. Until we hit a wall. And by we I mean I hit a wall, and it hurt.

I’ve tried outlining, free writing, and slamming shut my laptop.
I’ve tried deep breathing, praying, and taking a walk.
I’ve tried sleeping on it. I’ve tried time with the loved ones.
I’ve tried editing. I’ve tried moving on to the next section.

And right now, it’s flat-out making me down-right meshugganah.

I could blame it on work. Darn that still needing a paycheck…

I could blame it on family. What do you mean the kids are hungry, again? They still have dishes everywhere from the last time they ate, which might have been an interminable fifteen minutes ago. I had four blissful days of solitude while they went camping and, remarkably, the house kept itself clean! Dishes jumped into the dishwasher, counters remained uncluttered, and clothes made it into either a closet or a hamper. And then three dirty guys returned with bags overflowing with stinky clothes and gear and, while I am most happy to have my roost full, it has become more difficult to find a peaceful, uncluttered corner in which to concentrate.

I could absolutely blame it on the snake. Despite his emphatic promises that it would never, ever happen, Teen let a snake get loose in the family room. Distracted by the video gaming system he just bought from his friend, he forgot he had his newest, smallest, most curious snake on his lap. She slithered away, and he suspected she’d crawled into the teensiest hole in our leather couch. Next thing I know the couch is on its back while Guy and Teen begin taking it apart from underneath. Feeling like I couldn’t breathe, I grabbed the grocery list and dashed out the door. And then hit up our local TJ Maxx, because I was not going home until I got the all-clear.

They found Snake in the printer across the room and Teen has promised to be more careful. Clearly, snakes and video games don’t mix. And I have three lovely new blouses, so that’s something.

But blame won’t resolve the issue. I’ve read the quotes:

Every-writer-I-know-hasperfectionWriting_Quote_298

And how about this beauty?

Writing_Quote_20

So my question: If you regularly pursue creativity, what do you do to unstick yourself when you get stuck?

I’d really like to know.

Leaning In to a Plant-Based Lifestyle

I’ve had two conversations just this week with women who want to eat healthier, one a stay-at-home mom and the other a college student. While they couldn’t be more different, both have recognized that their eating habits have not been optimal and they admit they don’t know where to start in changing their habits.

Guy became a vegetarian while we were in college, convinced by a professor that humans were created to be good stewards of the planet, and animals raised for slaughter were not receiving ethical treatment. Since then, of course, there’s been a movement toward better animal care, grass-fed beef and free-range chickens, and that’s great. However, we’re also slowly recognizing that raising animals for food takes a big toll on our planet.

ppl v cow

And that’s not to mention methane emissions (animal farts!), or the vehicle emissions involved with shipping animals to slaughter and then meat to stores and restaurants.

I became a vegetarian by accident when, two years after we married, I ate a Cornish game hen at an event and felt sick to my stomach for days. I remember we’d been married two years because I couldn’t eat out on our second anniversary. I slowly lived into my new reality and eventually started reading and learning to cook, and now I “lean vegan,” cooking exclusively vegan and eating vegan out as much as possible.

However in those early years I was much like my confused friends, maybe worse because I didn’t realize how unhealthy our diet truly was. We thought eating veggie meant pasta and Caesar salad. Maybe veggie soup. Wash dishes and repeat. We had no idea…

Now we do, though, and I put effort into cooking and serving healthy, tasty meals to my family (both boys are great advertisements for a veggie lifestyle).

So where to start?

Focus on what you can have and not what you can’t.
It’s a mindset. You get to eat delicious plants, what a treat! Okay, at first this can be really hard (most change is hard, right?). You may not even like veggies, or at least you might not think you do. I didn’t. I laughed when people assumed I loved veggies.

You’ve probably been served, or cooked, bad veggies. Overcooked, bland, mushy, bleh. Who wants that? And you may very well be addicted to sugar and dairy (no kidding, both have addictive qualities. Doesn’t that bear out in your experience?).

The good news? You can kick your addictions and change your taste buds! One of the best pieces of advice I got from a pediatrician: it takes seventeen tastes over time to like a food that initially doesn’t taste good to you. Our younger son hated beans. We served him one bite regularly, until one day he griped at me that I hadn’t put enough beans on his serving of taco salad. He responded to my expression of surprise in equal measure: “What? I love beans!” And promptly helped himself to more.

None of my guys liked whole wheat pasta the first time we tried it so I started cutting in a small ratio of whole wheat to regular pasta each time I made it, gradually adding more whole wheat over time. We don’t even eat pasta all that often anymore (our veggie repertoire has vastly increased) but when we do, it’s all whole wheat and no one balks.

Same goes for me. I didn’t like sweet potatoes and now I do; they’re still a little sweet for me so I emphasize savory when I cook them, roasting them and serving them with Dijon mustard, for example. I wanted to cut dairy out of my coffee; at first I switched to almond milk and then, over time, I added less and less non-dairy milk to the cup and now I drink it black, no problem.

Make a plan.
Weekly menu planning may be the smartest way to go but I’m not that organized or disciplined. However, it might be exactly what you need to get started.

Because dairy and sugar are addictive, experts recommend going cold-turkey. Yes, you may experience unpleasant detox symptoms for a while – a week to a month – but you’ll be better off. But maybe no meat seems too daunting. So try Meatless Mondays. Or meatless before dinner. Or choose two to three easy meals you can repeat over a week. For example:

Oatmeal (even unsweetened quick oats will do) + chopped fruit and nuts with a little cinnamon; I’ve been known to throw in a little healthy trail mix. Depending on the add-ins, this meal can be different every time.

Smoothie two ways: coconut water and water + a handful of spinach + a couple of peels from fresh ginger + frozen mixed berries OR mango and pineapple. You can use just water if coconut water seems too hippy-dippy for you, and you can add more or less spinach as you acclimate your palate. If you really want to go nuts, add a squeeze of citrus and maybe even a dash of ground cayenne pepper to spice it up.

And there you go, three easy breakfasts or lunches that require only a few minutes in the kitchen and are oh-so-healthy.

Start lunch and dinner with a salad.
How to build a salad: greens (Romaine, spinach, kale, arugula, mixed greens), other veggies (tomatoes, shredded carrots, celery, cucumber, bell peppers, artichoke hearts, olives), fruits (maybe not on the same salad topped with extra veggies, but apples, peaches, nectarines, plums, watermelon are all great), legumes (beans and nuts), and grains (brown rice, quinoa, couscous, farro).

Garden salad: Greens + tomatoes, carrots, cuke, bell peppers, green beans + citrus vinaigrette

Taco salad: Greens + bell peppers, jicama, avocado + pinto, black and kidney beans + salsa as dressing

Mediterranean salad: Greens + bell pepper, red onion, olives, artichoke hearts, tomatoes + garbanzo or cannellini beans + red wine vinaigrette

The combinations are thankfully endless. It’s even better if you make your own salad dressing, but I understand if that feels like too much to start. For heaven’s sake, these days you can even buy a ready-to-go salad mix in a bag, complete with dressing and toppings. No excuses.

Make friends with beans.
My kitchen/pantry overflow with beans: cans of garbanzo, black, pinto, kidney, refried black or pinto, and cannellini beans; frozen edamame and green beans; dried lentils and bean blends. Beans taste good, satisfy, and are oh-so-versatile. You change the salad simply by changing the bean, or better yet, adding a combination.

Or chop some onion, carrots, and celery and sautee in a large soup pan; add veggie broth and beans; season to taste, and you’ve got a scrumptious veggie soup. Add some cooked whole wheat pasta and a dash of red wine and you’ve got minestrone.

Keep healthy snacks ready to go.
One of the biggest complaints I hear about eating plant-based is that it requires so much cooking. True confession: I have felt that way from time to time. On the other hand, I snack way less than I used to because the veggie meals I eat satisfy more than the processed foods I used to eat.

A couple of easy snack solutions. First, eat fruit. Seriously, in-season fruit makes for the easiest snacks. Secondly, cook in larger quantities so you have leftovers. I almost always make twice as much salad for dinner so we can quickly grab leftover salad for lunch at work. Finally, don’t forget to plan for snacks when you shop. Buy some hummus and veggies, pre-cut if that makes it more likely you’ll eat them. Whole wheat flat bread with hummus and sliced cucumber is delish, as is whole wheat toast with natural nut butter and sliced banana. Trail mix (without candy), a handful of nuts, you might even find a granola bar that works for you (although even the healthiest pre-packaged bars taste too sweet for me these days).

Find support.
A friend or family member to support you in your desire to form healthy habits can make a big difference. I also follow healthy eating blogs and Facebook pages which give me new recipe ideas and encouragement to keep going. Some of my favorites: Oh She Glows (great recipes); and Forks Over Knives (if you can, watch the documentary) and UCDavis Integrative Medicine, both of which provide solid nutritional research from the medical community.

Be patient.
Healthy eating isn’t a diet, it’s a change of lifestyle. It will take time and you will be tempted to give up. I say I “lean vegan” because I don’t do it perfectly. I am a total sucker for good pizza (however, you can find vegan pizza if you look, and it can be pretty amazing). Take a baby step, and then another. Live into it at your own pace and watch your health improve.

Slow Down

An ordinary afternoon dog-walk around the neighborhood turned gruesome. A car passed just as I noticed a squirrel hunkered in the middle of the lane. Car 1 slowed down, paused until two cars were directly opposite in the other lane, and then blared its horn. Horn terrified Squirrel who leaped sideways under the tire of Car 2, followed by the wheels of Car 3. No kidding, I squeaked in horror.

All three cars drove on, while Dog and I had to continue our walk past twitching, then dead-still, squirrel. Because God loves all His creatures, I prayed for this little one.

I felt dirty, complicit for having witnessed this scene. It happened so quickly but it seemed Car 1 deliberately honked at exactly the wrong moment, that it could have honked earlier or later, or simply stopped for a moment. That the rush of life was just too much.

Last summer I read a book that referenced “the Gronk,” the driver behind you who honks incessantly the very second the red light turns green. Like the extra five seconds he might rush you to the gas pedal mean that much? Seriously, dude, chill!

A few days later Guy and I took Dog for another stroll. Same neighborhood, different street, equally gruesome: the smallest fawn I’ve ever seen lay in the roadside grass. At first we didn’t notice it as it was so out of place; someone driving too fast must have hit it hard to launch it out of the road and over the sidewalk; and then we saw it twitch. Morning commute had it out for this beauty.

All this during the first week of summer, and meanwhile my kids’ friends were too busy or too tired to play and their moms already seemed harried. Don’t get me wrong, we have a few things going on, too, but balanced with a big dose of summertime do-nothing. Because “Boredom = Opportunity.”

Summer is not a sprint. Honestly, it’s a gift, much like the Sabbath we so dutifully ignore. Long, hot days make our bodies and brains want to move slower, to float in the pool, to sip cool drinks over laughter-filled chats with friends, to play and rest – and work as necessary – in a different rhythm.

We slowed down with a week of family vacation. Leisurely strolls along the beach, hunting for beach glass, reading good books, eating and sleeping as much as needed and then a little more.

“Regular” life necessarily isn’t vacation, but we can bring elements of vacation, of rest, into “regular” life:
Turn off social media
Do something that stretches you beyond your comfort zone
Move your body playfully
Learn something new
Make dinner a family carpet picnic of kid-friendly finger foods
Schedule outings with friends
Create something; if that intimidates you, color in a coloring book
Turn off the TV and read a book
Play a board game
Pamper yourself
Do something you haven’t done since childhood and laugh yourself silly along the way

Yesterday I worked, and then I met a friend and her sweet daughter for a mani/pedi. I usually do my own nails, but after a week of beach walking my feet were a wreck. It felt terrific, and the time with these dear ones filled me up. During a brief conversational lull I glanced up at the large screen TV – mercifully playing without sound – to catch a glimpse of a road sign that read:

LIFE IS PRECIOUS
SLOW DOWN

Yes, that’s it! Perhaps we don’t even see the carnage we create as we race from Point A to B to Z, the lost life or lost opportunities or the children for whom we’ve scheduled too many activities when they truly only want more time with us, their parents.

What would it take for you to slow down? What can you do today, tomorrow, this week, this month, to intentionally stop the madness? Life is precious, and I don’t want to miss the beauty.

slowing-down-gift