Spring Break

March 25, 2013

I’m taking a brief spring break from blogging, but I’ll be back soon. Hope your week is a happy one!


Five Things Making Me Happy Right Now

March 22, 2013

So much of life is made up of the little things, the simple pleasures and everyday adventures that form the main part of our existence. If we can take pleasure in those little things (instead of waiting for some distant “big thing”), we’ll find our day-to-day lives that much happier. Here are five little things making me happy right now:

Singing. I love to sing—not for an audience, but with the radio or CDs, in the shower, driving down the road, etc. I just started doing it again lately, after falling silent for months.

Robins Eggs. Every year when the Easter candy hits the shelves, I treat myself to a bag (just one) of Robins Eggs. In order to be satisfying, they have to be made with Whopper brand malted milk candies and they have to be the full size, not the minis. I’m very particular about my junk food.

My dog. Scout makes me happy nearly every day…except when she has to go potty at 4 in the morning. I spend considerable time each day petting her, giving her treats, loving her. Today’s her 14th birthday, and we’ve had her since she was eight weeks old. She’s an integral member of the family, and we know that since she’s aging she won’t be with us forever. I’m making the most of the time we have.

Gardenias. I just picked the first gardenia blossom from my plant and its gorgeous scent perfumes my desk. Once picked, the flowers last only a day or two, but while they last, they can make a whole room smell wonderful.

The Olive Grove, by Katherine Kizilos. I loved visiting Greece a few years ago, and while I’d love to return someday, for now I have to make do with other people’s trips. Kizilos makes me feel like I’m there when she describes the blue of the Aegean, and the way the island of Santorini rises up out of the sea. 

What’s making you happy right now?


Passing Through

March 20, 2013

Photo courtesy Wendy Domeni

Each of the senses has a way of evoking time and place. In this bittersweet poem by Jeffrey Harrison of Massachusetts, birdsong offers reassurance as the speaker copes with loss. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]


Walking past the open window, she is surprised
by the song of the white-throated sparrow
and stops to listen. She has been thinking of
the dead ones she loves--her father who lived
over a century, and her oldest son, suddenly gone
at forty-seven--and she can't help thinking
she has called them back, that they are calling her
in the voices of these birds passing through Ohio
on their spring migration. . . because, after years
of summers in upstate New York, the white-throat
has become something like the family bird.
Her father used to stop whatever he was doing
and point out its clear, whistling song. She hears it
again: "Poor Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody."
She tries not to think, "Poor Andy," but she
has already thought it, and now she is weeping.
But then she hears another, so clear, it's as if
the bird were in the room with her, or in her head,
telling her that everything will be all right.
She cannot see them from her second-story window--
they are hidden in the new leaves of the old maple,
or behind the white blossoms of the dogwood--
but she stands and listens, knowing they will stay
for only a few days before moving on.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright © 2006 by Jeffrey Harrison. Reprinted from Incomplete Knowledge, Four Way Books, 2006, with permission of the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.


Take One Book and Call Me in the Morning

March 18, 2013

Feeling down?

Take one book and call me in the morning.

I don’t know about you, but I self-medicate with books. When I’m enduring a difficult stretch, I often choose to read books that are funny, or I’ll reach for a familiar comfort read. I’ll choose the simple and clear over the more complex, simply because my mind is under strain already and I want any input I have control over to be positive and uplifting.

Well, it turns out that my instinct for bibliotherapy is a sound one: In several countries, including England, people with mild to moderate mental health issues, including anxiety, panic attacks and depression, can be prescribed high-quality self help books they can borrow from their local libraries. Miranda McKearney, chief executive of the Reading Agency, a group that helped develop the list of books, told Mark Brown of The Guardian, “There is a growing evidence base that shows that self help reading can help people with certain mental health conditions to get better.” The program is called Books on Prescription, and the topics the books cover include anger, anxiety, depression, binge eating and stress and worry, among others. (Please note that this program is not intended for those with serious mental illness.) Click here for a list of 30 of the most popular books used in Books on Prescription programs.

But what if you don’t have a mental health condition—can books still help you feel better? I certainly think so, and so does the Reading Agency, which has also compiled a list of “mood boosting books”—books they believe will generally provide uplifting reading. My favorite Barbara Kingsolver book, Prodigal Summer, is on this list, and a couple of books that are currently on my TBR list.  I’ll explore some of the other titles because I’m always looking for happy reads. Click here for the whole list. (If you have a book to suggest, they’re currently compiling a new list for 2013. Tweet your recommendation using #moodboosting or email them at moodboosting@readingagency.org.uk. Recommendations will be given to reading groups who will decide which books make the cut for the list to be released in May.)

If I were to make my own list of mood boosting books, in addition to Prodigal Summer, it would include:

Fifty Acres and a Poodle, Jeanne Marie Laskas

Cartoon collections like Baby Blues, Zits, or Calvin and Hobbes

Horse Heaven, Jane Smiley

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

A book from the Anne of Green Gables series, probably Anne of the Island (I dont like the cover of this edition, but its the most recent), Anne of Windy Poplars or Anne’s House of Dreams. Or more likely, all three.

A cozy mystery by Agatha Christie or Patricia Wentworth.

A collection of Dave Barry’s newspaper columns, like Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up or Dave Barry Talks Back.

So what about you? I’m dying to know—what would your mood-boosting books list include?


The Week of Yes

March 15, 2013

It started with a pair of socks. I needed a pair of socks to ride in, and I found some cute ones at a tack store where I was having a repair done. As with any specialized item, since the socks were “for riding” they cost more than an equivalent pair of plain socks. I weighed my options: buy the slightly-more-expensive-but-cute socks that are exactly the right length and thickness for riding or save money, wait for a sale, buy another pair of socks that will do but are not quite right. You’d think that would be an easy decision, wouldn’t you? It was when I was standing there holding the socks and debating with myself about buying them that I realized just how stingy I can be with myself.

I’ve been thinking about this concept for quite some time. Where is the line between common sense frugality and stinginess? Part of the way I think comes from how I grew up and most of my young adulthood. For a long time, I did not have money for anything except true necessities. I remember carrying a calculator to the grocery store when I was first married; once I hit a certain amount, items were returned to the shelf. There simply was no extra money in the budget.

But it’s not just money but time that I’m stingy with. I’ve begun to feel that if I’m not working—either for pay or for the good of the family—I’m wasting time. Add these beliefs to my naturally cautious and shy nature and you have a recipe for a narrow, joyless life and a lot of guilt. I seem to take a perverse pleasure in denying myself things I want, whether it’s a pair of socks or a half hour to read *gasp* right in the middle of the day.

I don’t want to live like that. I want to be more generous, loving and kind to myself. I believe that will make me happier as well as help me be more generous and loving to others. So I came up with the concept of “a week of yes”—a week where I followed my impulses, indulged my desires and generally loosened up on myself. Three times I’ve set out to have a “week of yes”—and three times I’ve started and stopped.  I can’t seem to sustain the concept of saying yes for more than a day or two. It’s hard! It’s scary. It requires some serious attention and listening to myself.

Why don’t I say yes? Like too many things, it comes down to fear: What if I say yes and something bad happens? What would other people think? What options will I close off if I say yes? I’m a little afraid of what I’ll get myself into by saying yes. I definitely don’t want a life that is overloaded with too many activities and I don’t want yes to be indulgence for indulgence’s sake.

To make things more confusing, sometimes saying no is really saying yes! Saying no to lots of yummy-but-bad-for-me foods is really saying yes to my bigger goals of being leaner and healthier. (However, saying no to all delicious foods can lead to binge eating. Let’s not get too carried away here.) Saying no to an $80 purse I don’t need and am not in love with means saying yes to keeping that $80 for something else. (Here, a friend’s motto, “If it’s not an absolute yes, it’s a no” comes in handy.)

Instead of a week of yes, I’m slowly and gradually bringing yes into my life in small ways. To start, I’ve come up with these basic guidelines. I will say yes if:
    • It costs less than $10.
    • It’s something I’ve been wanting/wanting to do for a long time.
    • It furthers my larger and most important goals: good health, loving relationships, fulfilling work.
    • It’s an unexpected chance that might not come again.

And yes, I bought the socks.

The socks that started it all.
Do you think you’re generous with yourself? What do you want to say yes to?

Field Trip Friday: Le Mouton Noir

March 12, 2013

Are you ready for another installment of Field Trip Friday? This time, our wanderings took us to Le Mouton Noir (“the black sheep”) Bakehouse, because sometimes you just need to visit a gourmet bakery. Partner-in-adventure Laure and I made the trek to downtown Tampa to have lunch at this little place I’d heard about through the newspaper.

While our day was fun, we had a bit more adventure than we planned, thanks to my own inattention to detail. My first mistake was to copy only the rights and lefts of the Google Maps directions without the distances between points, and my second mistake was assuming I knew where the place was and walking confidently off in that direction after we’d parked. It was after we’d walked several l-o-o-n-g blocks and the street numbers were going the wrong direction that I remembered a bit about cross streets and Laure pulled out her phone to locate it. Yup, we’d walked in the opposite direction.

We were lucky it was a gorgeous, cool-but-sunny day and the extra walking made us feel that we could indulge, perhaps, in a pastry as well as lunch. (What better way to celebrate 20 extra minutes of walking than by inhaling 800 calories of sweet and sinful delight?)

By the time we reached the bakery, which we had actually driven past on our way to the parking garage, we were more than ready for lunch.

What I ate:

Insalata caprese sandwich
Our reward for the extra walking:

German chocolate cake
Lunch was delicious and worth the drive and walk. Laure sketched hers (she writes about it here) and I took pictures. Perhaps a sketch will appear in my sketchbook, but probably not, because I still haven’t finished the sketches from Sunken Gardens (but I promise I will and I’ll share them here)! We’ll probably go back at some future date—we haven’t tried the chocolate croissants, after all.

The moral of this Field Trip Friday is: when exploring new places, go with the flow and don’t get too upset if things don’t go quite as planned. Oh, and be sure to reward yourself with cake. Definitely, cake should be involved.

Have you taken a field trip lately?


Happy Little Things: Flavored Almonds

March 08, 2013

Eating: one of life’s great simple pleasures, but one that can quickly get me into trouble. In my quest for tasty-yet-mostly-healthy snacks, I’ve discovered the joy of flavored almonds. I started off with Blue Diamond butter toffee flavor, and…yum! Slightly sweet, but still mostly healthy. Next, a friend introduced me to the toasted coconut flavor, also tasty and just slightly sweet. And then, well, another friend warned told me about the salt ’n vinegar flavor, which is now my favorite. The only downside is that you have to be careful how many of these you eat, because one ounce weighs in at around 170 calories—no slugging down handfuls and expecting to retain (or regain) one’s svelte figure. 

Sure, plain almonds might be a bit healthier, and I do eat and enjoy them also—but when I want to have something that feels like a treat without totally derailing my health goals, I reach for one of these yummy flavors. They make me happy. (And yes, I do see that “artificially flavored” on the label of the salt ’n vinegar flavor—I admit they’re not perfect…but neither am I.)

What is your favorite healthy snack?

*I received no compensation for this completely unsolicited mention of Blue Diamond almonds.


Waiting for News From Spring

March 06, 2013

Photo courtesy rnhyppy

When spring finally arrives, it can be fun to see what winter left behind, and Jeffrey Harrison of Massachusetts is doing just that in this amusing poem. [Introduction by Ted Kooser.]

Mailboxes in Late Winter

It’s a motley lot. A few still stand
at attention like sentries at the ends
of their driveways, but more lean
askance as if they’d just received a blow
to the head, and in fact they’ve received
many, all winter, from jets of wet snow
shooting off the curved, tapered blade
of the plow. Some look wobbly, cocked
at oddball angles or slumping forlornly
on precariously listing posts. One box
bows steeply forward, as if in disgrace, its door
lolling sideways, unhinged. Others are dented,
battered, streaked with rust, bandaged in duct tape,
crisscrossed with clothesline or bungee cords.
A few lie abashed in remnants of the very snow
that knocked them from their perches.
Another is wedged in the crook of a tree
like a birdhouse, its post shattered nearby.
I almost feel sorry for them, worn out
by the long winter, off-kilter, not knowing
what hit them, trying to hold themselves
together, as they wait for news from spring.

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2012 by Jeffrey Harrison, whose most recent book of poems is Incomplete Knowledge, Four Way Books, 2006. Poem reprinted from Southwest Review, Vol. 97, no. 1, 2012, by permission of Jeffrey Harrison and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2013 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.


Morning Quiet

March 04, 2013

I cup my warm mug of coffee between both hands as I walk back to my office. Is there anything better than that first sip of coffee in the morning? I brew a mixture of half vanilla-flavored coffee and half plain coffee, keeping both myself and my husband happy. (Guess who likes the flavored coffee?) That first sip tastes so good, especially when followed up with a bit of cranberry orange scone. I use the coffee pot’s timer so when I get up the house smells like coffee and it’s ready for me to pour.

The sky over the trees gradually lightens, flushing pale pink to salmon. I look around my office at the many things I love: books, art supplies, pictures, little knick knacks. The birds begin to wake up, chattering and chirping in the trees. A pair of cardinals takes turns at the bird feeder.

Everyone else is still asleep—even the dog. I sit in my rocking chair—the one I’ve had since my son was an infant. How many hours did we spend here together, while I fed him, read or sang to him as he lay cradled in my arms or sleeping on my shoulder? He’s 18 and more than six feet tall now.

It feels like I’m all alone in the world. I watch the Spanish moss sway in the slightest of breezes. I pick up the notebook I use for morning pages, the cardboard cover smooth beneath my fingers. I like to use composition books for morning pages. They’re a nice, portable size and sturdy enough to be used for months at a time. And they now come in many pretty designs—I usually stock up at the beginning of the school year when there’s more to choose from.  Some mornings words flow unstoppable from my pen as I perform a sort of brain dump onto the page, lightening myself for the day ahead, working through my plans, clearing out emotional fogs, aches and pains, happinesses. After I fill my three pages, my hand and arm ache pleasantly and I know that at least for today I’ve written something, even if no one else ever sees it. (My husband says when I die he’s going to read all my notebooks and journals. I say go right ahead—I won’t care at that point!)

I used to be a night person, loving to stay up past when others went to sleep. Now I’m too tired by nightfall, and I’d have a hard time staying up past when my son goes to bed (I think he’s nocturnal). I still love the beautiful, quiet hours near midnight. They still feel magical if I ever manage to stay awake that long. Perhaps I’ll gravitate back towards being a night person again when I no longer need to get up so early in the morning.

Both late night and early morning share something in common: solitude. I have a great need for solitude and quiet which I struggle hard to meet. My husband works at home and is always around. We still have our son at home. I’m lucky to get an hour or two alone in my home each week. I try to make up for that by getting up before everyone else in the morning.

Pretty soon, alarm clocks will go off, the dog will need to be walked, my day’s work will start. But for right now, I’m enjoying my coffee and the morning quiet.

What’s your favorite time of day?


Happy Habits

March 01, 2013

Morning habit

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then,
is not an act, but a habit.”

“Good habits, once established, are just as hard
to break as are bad habits”
—Robert Fuller

“Motivation is what gets you started.
Habit is what keeps you going.”
—Jim Rohn

Habits—good ones—can be our best friends. Research studies have revealed that as much as 45 percent of what we do each day is habitual—done automatically almost without thinking about it, driven by cues such as a specific place or time of day, a series of actions, certain moods, or the company of specific people. (Do we feel the need for a snack while watching TV perhaps, or do we check email as soon as we come back from lunch?)

In the areas of my life that run smoothly, I’ve developed good habits: I have a regular exercise schedule and a system for completing household chores, for example. However, I also have habits that need to be reassessed, like when and how I access email and Pinterest, and new habits I’d like to build, like sketching 15 minutes a day. How can I begin to develop new good habits and change bad ones?

The first step is simply to begin…somewhere, somehow. Since I want to add sketching to my days, I can pull out the kitchen timer, set it for 15 minutes and choose a time of day I feel will be conducive to that activity. I may have to try different times of day until I find one that works. I’m usually pretty good at this getting-started stage—it’s the sticking to it that’s a problem for me.

And stick to it I must if I want to firmly establish a new habit, and not just for 21 days, as we’ve often heard. Apparently, “21-days-to-a-new-habit” is a myth. One study found that on average it took 66 days for a new habit to form (so if you’re instituting a New Year’s resolution, you should be prepared to keep at it until March 6 in order for it to become a habit). The time it took to form a habit depended on how difficult the habit was (drinking a glass of water as opposed to doing 50 sit-ups, for example) and the individual him/herself. It seems some people simply find it easier than others to form habits. (During the study, one person took just 18 days to form a habit, while another was forecast to do so after 254 days, long after the study had ended.)

What if I want to change a bad habit? I found an interesting little tidbit about that when I was reading up on habit research: “…habits are responses to needs. This sounds obvious, but countless efforts at habit change ignore its implications. If you eat badly, you might resolve to start eating well, but if you’re eating burgers and ice cream to feel comforted, relaxed and happy, trying to replace them with broccoli and carrot juice is like dealing with a leaky bathroom tap by repainting the kitchen. What’s required isn’t a better diet, but an alternative way to feel comforted and relaxed” (Oliver Burkeman, “This Column Will Change Your Life: How Long Does It Really Take to Change a Habit?” The Guardian).

When I check email or putter on Pinterest, I’m usually looking for a way to relax or (I admit it) I’m avoiding doing something I don’t really want to do. To relax, maybe I could try simply sitting in my rocking chair with my eyes closed and taking a few deep breaths. I can also schedule email checks at certain times of day, instead of randomly doing it when I’m trying to avoid another task. Pinterest or other internet wanderings can be used as rewards after I finish some work, and I can pull out that timer again so that I won’t be completely sucked into the internet abyss.

I think these are small steps towards developing new habits that I can actually stick with, but I’d love to hear from you. What new habits are you developing and how are you doing it? What old habits are you trying to break?