July 29, 2014

As I write this on a gorgeous, sunny –and dry—70-degree day in July (!), I am feeling happy and grateful and not at all grumpy like I normally am this time of year in Tennessee. I know I complain a lot about things I can’t change such as the climate where I live, and I do a fair amount of it here on the blog, but I am highly susceptible to mood swings that depend on the weather. It’s just who I am. It’s probably the reason I spent 12 years happily living in Colorado and could have seen myself living there the rest of my life. But I am glad I moved here. For many reasons, not the least of which is the beautiful family I have and the idyllic lifestyle we live which I am reminded of every single day.

I feel particularly grateful lately as I watch the news of so many atrocities happening around the world. The bombing in Gaza, the violent shooting of the airliner from the sky in Ukraine, the two-hour execution (and others like it) in Arizona, the child refugees at the border searching for a better life and being turned away, the endless school shootings…it’s enough to make you really question our existence and get pretty overwhelmed with sadness.

Some people deal with these realities by turning off the TV and the computer, by turning a blind eye to the world and focusing on their own little universes and the small things they can do to produce good in the world. That’s wonderful. I wish I could that. I am cursed with a need to know, an almost masochistic torture where I force myself to watch and to read about what’s going on in the world. I think I inherited this from my dad. He is a voracious reader and media consumer. Some of my earliest memories are of hearing the theme song to the nightly news and seeing him read the newspaper. He still does. He’s very well informed and a very compassionate human being. He gets involved, too. He volunteers every week feeding the homeless, he has arguments with co-workers about politics and he never misses his opportunity to vote.

My mom, on the other hand, had a spirit and generosity that was more local. She was a kindergarten teacher and touched the lives of many, many children who loved her, and she helped her friends and neighbors all the time. I remember her saying, as she was dying of cancer, “I wish I could do more to help people.”

So I guess it’s no surprise that I’m a bleeding heart and compassionate to a fault. It’s also interesting to see how it is affecting my daughter who watches and learns from everything we do, whether we realize it or not. But is this a bad thing? I wonder, when I watch the news sometimes while making dinner and she plays in another room or helps me in the kitchen, listening all the while. Or whether our morning ritual of having breakfast, drinking coffee while listening to NPR in the kitchen is somehow bad for her. Am I exposing her to too much atrocity and sadness? Does she become afraid when she sees the look on my face or the tears in my eyes?

I used to worry about this, but lately I have decided to embrace my compassion and not hide it from her. After all, isn’t one of our most important jobs as parents to model kindness and empathy for our kids? I am just being real. I am not interested in creating a make-believe world to shelter her from bad things. Of course, I don’t want her to have nightmares and worry about death, but at the same time, she is old enough and, I believe, sophisticated enough already to understand that there is both good and bad in the world and how lucky we are to live where we live, while other children in other parts of the world are not so lucky. I want her to know this.

So it is with pride and a tinge of sadness that I field her questions “Where is that? And how close is it to here?” (about the violence in Gaza). That’s when I pulled out the world atlas and showed her on the map where it was and explained to her about the geography of the middle East.

When she told me she had named her newest doll "Gaza," I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry.

And when she overheard on the news that there was a shooting and a mother and her child were injured and asked where that was, I told her that it was in downtown Nashville, only a few miles from where we live. But we are safe here, I assured her.

Some people may question my motives in exposing my child to so much at such an early age. And I could be wrong, but I tend to believe that in the long run, it will make her a more compassionate and caring person. She already knows about Kenya (where her auntie Neena worked last year helping women and children), she knows what war is and that it is happening in several parts of the world, and she knows that the young girl across the street who came to our door on a cold winter night because her aunt wouldn’t let her in the house was a lot less fortunate than us but not because of anything she did wrong.

As one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott says:

We stitch together quilts of meaning to keep us warm and safe, with whatever patches of beauty and utility we have on hand. We help each other laugh, against all odds. Barry Lopez was right: after all is said and done, all we have are Compassion and stories. 

It’s so true.

I’ll keep being emotional and connected to the world in front of my child because I can’t do it any other way.  And hopefully, it will be something she remembers (and likes) about me when she’s older.

May 14, 2014

 For the last six weeks or so we have had a bountiful season, replete with all the colors, sounds and smells you would expect of Spring in the South--my favorite time of year, perhaps the only time of year I really love the weather here.

We spent a lot of time last month working on our backyard and making it more beautiful. Once we cleaned out the last vestiges of winter--the blanket of brown leaves that had been there since fall--we got to work making it both more useable and better to look at. Then we cleaned out our vegetable garden and planted new grass seed throughout the yard, spreading hay over the trouble spots that needed more green.We even stopped throwing the ball in the same spot over and over for our ball-crazy dog and have, for the first time, managed to grow grass on the right side of the yard. And a major bonus: she still wants to fetch but isn't quite as obsessed as she used to be.

We also did a little patio makeover, replacing the ugly brick pavers with sand-colored pea gravel bordered by railroad ties. I love it. It reminds me of little patios in Europe.  I bought a new teak round table that I love and added a few plants here and there. Over the last two years, we've taken down a couple of hackberry trees and it has really opened up the yard to the sun and sky.

Daniel built a castle for June last fall and the three of us worked together one sunny afternoon to put the finishing touches on it and paint it. On Easter we had about 15 kids over for an egg hunt and it was so wonderful to see them all up there "storming the castle."

The backyard has been a long work in progress, as has everything with this little 1930s East Nashville bungalow we bought exactly 7 years ago. We closed on it on May 15th, 2007. And, while I've lived with one foot out the door, always looking for an opportunity to move for the last 6.5 years, now I feel like we are pretty settled in and will soon start renovating it instead of moving. I am finding that what makes me happy these days is making something out of what we have, not always wanting more.

Living in a small house (1,150 sq.ft. to be exact) is a challenge, but it makes you really edit out the clutter and get creative with your space. I think I could win an award for the most creative use of a small, oddly laid out house. I rearrange the furniture about 3-4 times a year. When recently it looked like we might be adding one to our little family, I was already scheming about how to make room in what is essentially a one-bedroom. Just a year ago, we moved June out of her matchbox-sized nursery that Daniel built out of what was  part of a bathroom and a closet, and turned that space into my office/sitting room. I love having my own little space to write in and keep some of my books.

I am more and more convinced that, for me, happiness is found not in buying things or acquiring more stuff, but in the everyday small things we do like cooking dinner together, hanging out with our friends while the kids play and just living in a neighborhood where it's possible to have friendly social interactions everyday. These are the keys to a happy life (I believe this, but so do many others and it's born out in a lot of research--see here and here).

I think that while we still have room to grow and improve (I am working on my shopping habits and have made huge progress shopping more and more locally and second-hand for most everything), we have managed over the last several years to build a life that expresses our intrinsic values. I am not saying that I still don't find sometimes that I get sucked into the materialistic messages that surround us all the time or that I am not as addicted to my personal media devices as everyone else (except for maybe my husband). But it's a constant challenge and I am reminded by the beautiful little things I see everyday, especially in Spring, that social connection and community and spending time with those we love are the true foundations of a happy life.

As a little reminder of this, there are three different bird families nesting on some part of our house right now. There is a family of starlings in the eaves of the front porch who have been coming back every year now for at least the last five to have their babies; there is a new nest on the inside of the porch at the top of a column which houses a morning bird and her mate sitting on a nest of eggs; and there is a little robin family who have made their home on top of a drain pipe on the back of the house and just yesterday I saw four little hungry beaks popping up! These little birds have provided me and June endless hours of delight while we watch them do their thing, the thing they were meant to do, with such determination and purpose. It gives me a lot of hope that this goes on right in our midst --literally on our little house--and we can all co-exist peacefully, all while living in the urban core of a city. Now that's happy.

copyright 2014 joyiscooking