It’s the casual salutation in an e-mail. It’s the lovely thought at the end of the phone conversation. It’s what we learn how to do as toddlers. But what does it really mean to take care?
I have been sick with a bad cold, home from work for a couple of days. I sent texts to my boss and the people I supervise, to let them know I wouldn’t be in and to keep track of general tasks for the day, before going back to the couch to watch comforting videos from my DVD collection and to try to get some sleep, which has been quite elusive in the last couple of weeks. That rare sleep probably has something to do with the worn down immune system that has made this cold feel like a permanent state of being, rather than just a brief interlude.
Isn’t it weird that we often don’t appreciate something so important as health? Why is it that we take it for granted, until a cold, or worse, a scary medical diagnosis snaps us into grateful awareness? I am still harboring a fever with loud coughing and noisy sneezing. All of a sudden, I am very aware that health is a beautiful gift and that taking care should be a shouted command, not a whispered afterthought.
Sure, I can talk about eating healthy: fresh fruits and vegetables, less sugar and fewer processed foods. But what about taking care of our whole selves? What do we need for our minds, for our spirits, not just for our bodies? I deeply believe that these are all very much connected. If we are taking care of our bodies, we should also be paying attention to what feeds our souls, our minds, our beings.
A few months ago, I was deep in the midst of loss: the loss of a dear friendship and the loss of my dad after his death. I read some books on grief, wrote a lot in my journal, and slowly found the way to healing. Almost everywhere I looked, it was recommended that I take care of myself in the midst of the grief, despite the bad instinct to do otherwise.
What does taking care mean? What does it mean to you? What does it look like? What is self-care comprised of? What are the habits and rituals that help us to heal? What helps us to remember to take care of ourselves? Why is that we often lose ourselves in the care for others, when in reality, we aren’t much help to someone without taking care of ourselves?
I realized that while my bout with a cold might have been brought on by a co-worker who came to the office in a fit of sneezing and coughing, I realized that I had lapsed greatly in my own self-care. Regardless, both of these are probably contributing factors in my recent illness. Unlike those with serious health problems, I should be feeling better in a day or two. As I rest and dream of returning to a normal routine, I think about hitting the reset button and coming back to my routine of “taking care.” Some will be the same for all of us, but others will be specific to me. You will have your routines and practices that help you take care of yourself.
Here are some of the things that I need to do to take care of my mind, of my body, of my spirit, of my self, of my soul. Sleep. Eat three meals with lots of vegetables. Spend at least three minutes, no more than it takes time for the tea kettle to boil, in quiet meditation. Go for a run, no matter how slow and plodding, a few times a week. Limit my tv viewing time to a couple hours a week. Read good books for fun, for inspiration, for peace. Reach out to people I love in texts and phone calls. Take a few minutes to quickly clean up the messy routines of daily life: washing the dishes, putting away the clothes, dispersing with the recycling, clearing away the clutter on my work desk, watering the plants. Watch the sunrise and sunset. Keep track of the moon. Walk dogs. Donate a little time, donate a little money. Make good and sustaining meals. Find self-love, even when it feels difficult. Spend a little time in hobbies that I enjoy: taking pictures, learning to quilt, going on road trips, hiking on local trails. Spend time with loved ones. Say thank you for the magnificent and the mundane. Write a little each day. Lose myself in the magic of teaching. Reach beyond my self. Remind myself of all that I take for granted: health, love, friendship, a beautiful and small and peaceful home, access to good food.
It’s February and the month of Valentine’s Day and a very commercial time to express one’s love. Oh, the cliches and the candy and the ache. However, it is also a beautiful time to contemplate love and its role in our lives. There is an oft-expressed opinion that we overuse the word love in trivial, everyday moments, and yet do not fully express it in the heavier, more poignant times in life. I am not sure where I fall on that spectrum. As someone who is trying to grow in her writing, I think part of the challenge is that there are not many synonyms for love. Yes, there is affection, like, passion, but the four letter word really does the trick. Instead of worrying about using the word too much, or not respecting its deeper meanings, why not just embrace love in all its forms, from the every day to eternal?
Here are a few ways that I have appreciated love recently, from the mundane to the magnificent.
I loved a hot shower. I appreciated the clean water, the ritual, the metaphor of rebirth, and the heat on a cold morning.
I loved a really good cafe au lait from my favorite coffee shop and a special treat on the way to a packed day at work.
I loved a morning hiking with third graders and getting to share my love for the Rio Grande with those students.
I loved a haircut session with my favorite cosmetology student who is about to graduate. We chatted and caught up and I realized we have become good friends in her year of school. I love that we will keep in touch, even if sporadically.
I loved that an article of mine was recently published. I loved seeing my byline and the experience of a dream coming true, with the help of persistence and follow-through and vision.
I loved a new vintage purse that I purchased through a cool online vintage shop on Instagram. I loved the beauty and functionality and connecting with a new person who also loves fashion and style.
I loved hearing a new pop song on the radio. I sang, even though I didn’t know the words, and released tension in the midst of a fun, catchy tune.
I loved a night looking at the moon and talking with a good friend. I loved the time to just be with someone who understands me well. I love this person deeply and I cherish this person’s love for me.
I loved a session getting some good advice. I realized that I was lucky to have this person to provide perspective, but also loved that I was open to the advice and ready to take steps on something that terrifies me.
I loved the full moon rising over the mountains. I don’t care how many times I see the moon, I love its beauty, its phases, its presence.
I loved a long and meandering conversation with my mother on the phone. We talked about everything and nothing, and I love her so.
I loved an hour on the floor with my two favorite dogs. They aren’t mine, but I know them well and love them so much. I loved the fur, the paws stepping on me, the heads resting on my lap, and time just being quiet.
I loved an hour cleaning and straightening my apartment. I love my home and its cozy feel, the plants, the art on the walls, my books, all of it.
I loved an evening making dinner for myself, the chopping, the cooking, the cleaning, and the beautiful sustenance of a good meal.
I loved a funny string of texts with my sisters. I love them and enjoy the giggles, even while we are a few hundred miles from each other.
I loved getting my act together and applying for a new opportunity. It felt good to be brave enough to try instead of procrastinating and making excuses.
I loved the resolution of a financial question. Even though it’s not quite what I hoped for, it feels good to take steps and keep going.
I loved a quiet morning and all that it included.
I loved finding love in all the ordinary moments and facing the extraordinary.
“To think of shadows is a serious thing.”–Victor Hugo
It was Groundhog Day on February 2, and supposedly if the groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. If you look at the calendar, six weeks from February 2 puts us into mid-March, right before the vernal equinox and the beginning of spring. Anyway, many others have written quippy and funny articles about the weird holiday, but it got me to thinking about shadows.
Sometimes, we are scared of our shadows. We think of our shadow selves, our real, honest deep-down selves. For some, we are trying to find our true identities, or getting rid of the labels and digging into what is within. Our shadows might be the places we need to work on, to find what we have missed. Our shadows might be the wounds long ignored that finally need to be healed. Our shadows can be the strong and authentic that need to emerge. For some, the shadow and the self are no different. For some, shadows bring about the side of us that we do not share with just anyone. Maybe our shadows also hide our secret talents, passions, and desires. Perhaps our shadows are sheltering a new direction, a new project, a new relationship. Perhaps our shadows are letting this new thing gain ground, gain strength, gain shape.
Despite our enthusiasm for the approaching spring, I like to think of this last bit of winter as the most crucial of the hibernation time. It is the time to dig deep, literally and figuratively. It is the last of the dormant season before things begin to bud and sprout and grow. The winter time is often mistaken for the dead season, but it is just as important as the growing time. In a false thaw, when trees and plants sprout early, they can be damaged or even killed by the frost. Winter and this time of shadows can be the season for recovery and reflection and reassessment. This time of silence and darkness eventually yields to sound and lightness.
At various points in this blog, I have written about big new directions and goals. Sometimes, those have come to fruition. Other times, I have stumbled and faltered, or found a new direction very different from where I began. Sometimes, it helps to announce the goals, for excitement, for camaraderie, for accountability. Sometimes, though, it helps only to allude to the shadows and instead, shut up and get the work done and see what emerges. This is one of those times.
We can all find our resources, our tools, and our directions. We can find our shadows.
I sit back. I hunker down. I find the margin between the dark and the light. I take refuge in the shadows. I gather my tools. I sit in the right now. I begin.
For many, there are certain foods that bring back lovely memories from childhood. I am lucky to be in that group. There are specific dishes that not only serve as culinary time capsules, but also provide sustenance and comfort in their preparation and consumption. One of my favorites from childhood, and now a staple in adulthood, is green chile cheese quiche.
When I think of this food, I also remember a funny quote from one of my favorite movies, When Harry Met Sally. In a scene where Harry and Sally are quite solid in their friendship, Jess, who is Harry’s best friend, immediately hits it off with Sally’s best friend. The line he rattles off is, “Pesto is the quiche of the 80s.” So I guess quiche was a big deal in the 70s. Anyway, it has been a staple of my life now well into the 21st century.
I am not sure where the recipe originated. I just have very clear memories of a tattered and food-mottled index card with my mother’s familiar, loopy handwriting. I have made carefully written out several copies of that recipe to give to friends or when someone asked me for one of my favorite foods. I mostly have the recipe memorized at this point and with that time-worn familiarity, make adjustments based on my cravings, ingredients, or dietary needs of my dinner guests.
I can imagine that hipsters might “ironcially” love this dish and I can bet that foodies decry the use of so much cheese and my omission of bacon. It’s one of the recipes that transitioned well from childhood into limited cooking capacity in college (mostly due to a lack of a fully equipped kitchen, not due to the lack for a passion to cook) and then further into my strict vegetarianism (note, I didn’t say vegan) that lasted for all of college well into my late twenties.
Growing up, this dish was in my mother’s almost weekly regular repertoire and I see how convenient and filling this recipe was when she was a homemaker with three growing girls and a husband who worked long hours and also how easy it was to use when she was a busy and harried high school home ec teacher still determined to put homemade food on the dinner table.
What I love most about this quiche is its versatility. It works great for a weeknight meal, paired with a salad and a simple roasted vegetable as a side. It transitions well into leftovers, either cold right out of the fridge, or zapped for less than a minute in the microwave, or served room temperature when left out on the stove top on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It is also tasty as a brunch or breakfast option.
The recipe calls for a bottom pie crust, the only kind I can make. Somehow, when I put my homemade top crust on a pie, it tends to fall apart, or I lack the knack for making it look pretty. I love making pie crusts from scratch and find it soothing to roll out the dough and slowly press it into place in a pie pan or one of my grandmother’s glass Pyrex pie dishes. I will admit, though, when in a hurry, or just being lazy, I will reach for the grocery store freezer option of a pre-made pie crust. Since often two crusts come together, it gives me the freezer choice to make two quiches or to save one pie crust for later.
Last Sunday, I wanted to bake and a windy, chilly winter afternoon only contributed to the mood. I put my favorite Duke Ellington on the CD player and headed into the kitchen. I reached into the back of my small freezer and found the second pie crust from a package that I had opened a few weeks ago. Out of the refrigerator, I assembled the rest of the ingredients. One of the other joys of this recipe is that it calls for my kitchen staple resources, things that I have on-hand even if I haven’t been to the grocery store in a couple of weeks.
My mother’s recipe card calls for a couple different kinds of cheese, totaling about a cup and a half. Mostly I go with less cheese, but I wing it each time I make it. I often just go with what I have on hand, usually sharp cheddar, but occasionally weird choices that only add to the flavor palate. My other favorite part of this recipe is that all the mixing and preparation happens inside the pie crust, so very few dishes are dirtied or used once you have the pie crust, either store bought or laboriously handmade. So, you dump cheese, a bit of milk, a scant bit of flour (as thickener) and stir right into the pie crust. Then I add green chile. My mom’s recipe always called for a small can of diced green chile, but since we moved to northern New Mexico before I started junior high, green chile was in our freezer always. Even in the many years I lived in the Midwest and Colorado, I almost always found a way to get fresh green chile into my freezer to last for the year. You can take the girl out of New Mexico, but you can’t take green chile from her freezer.
Now that I am back in New Mexico, it makes me laugh to think of the efforts to get green chile into my freezer in Minnesota (think airplane carry-on, and substantial amounts of dry ice in care packages sent by my mother and handled by the postal service) or fall weekend trips to New Mexico to get the good stuff in the decade I lived in Colorado. One Minnesota winter, when I needed a new-but-used-automobile, after a car-totaling accident, it was the good excuse to buy the car from my stepfather, also a car dealer, but the major deciding factor was a huge trunk filled with dry ice and green chile. I can think of many years that I drove up and down the very familiar stretch of Interstate-25 in a day or two to get a bushel or more of fresh green chile roasted and then several hours putting small amounts of said roasted green chile into sandwich-sized heavy-duty plastic bags into the freezer. One of my favorite weekly kitchen rituals is to reach into the freezer and grab two or three small plastic bags full of green chile and place into a bowl to thaw in my refrigerator.
Once the green chile is added, crack three eggs right into the pie crust, and stir with a fork to break up the yolks. My mother’s recipe called for the addition of bacon, sometimes she used the artificial bacon bits from salad toppings, but mostly she used the intentional leftovers from breakfast. When I became a strict vegetarian in college and through most of my twenties, I left out the bacon option. Now, while I certainly eat bacon on special occasions (isn’t eating bacon always a special occasion?), I never think to add it to the quiche. The last of the remaining cheese, I sprinkle on the the top of the quiche and then I pop the brimming full pie pan into a preheated oven at 375 F for approximately 20-30 minutes. In the summer, when I make quiche, I bake it super early in the morning or in the middle of the night, so that the hot oven doesn’t heat up an already steamy July day.
This past Sunday, my house was clean and all my chores were done, so I slid the quiche into the oven, set the kitchen timer, and quickly washed the few dishes in the sink from an early breakfast and the quiche prep, then hopped into the shower. I reveled in the hot water, but quickly washed my hair, and shaved my legs. I didn’t want the shower to end, but mindful of my water consumption and also the cooking quiche, I dried off and pulled on a cozy grey sweater, thick black socks, and my favorite navy blue patterned pajama pants. I left my newly-installed apartment heater set to off and padded into the kitchen. I made it just as the timer began to beep. I turned off the oven and reached for my red-flowered oven mitt to pull out the quiche, perfectly set and lightly browned, and plopped it onto the stove top. I dumped almost half a bag of fresh arugula greens onto a white dinner plate and poured a glass of my favorite cheap bottle of Malbec. Then I sliced the quiche into 8 pie-triangle-shaped pieces and slid one onto the plate. I grabbed the wine glass with the full dinner plate and a fork from the dish drainer into my fingers and ventured into the living room.
I hit play on the CD player and Duke Ellington played again from the speakers. I sank into the couch and tucked into the quiche and wine. It’s a comfort food, a simple dish that brings me from childhood into adulthood. The simplicity and cheesy goodness are all I need. Sometimes I share with friends and family, but last Sunday, I enjoyed a warm dish on a windy wintry late afternoon all by myself. Independence or company, a green chile quiche accommodates all. I tasted the bite of green chile and sharp cheddar. I tasted home.
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.”–Melody Beattie
When we were little, my mother always made sure we wrote thank you notes to friends and relatives for the gifts we received for birthdays and Christmases. In later years, my grandmother and great-aunt had saved some of those letters and shared them with us. We laughed together, remarking on the childhood cursive and funny phrasing, but I noticed that my grandmother put them away as if they were precious jewels.My great-aunt was a minimalist, before that word was commonly tossed around, and kept very little. When she died a couple of years ago, the things she had saved were albums full of family photographs and our childhood letters, especially those thank you notes.
The summer after high school graduation, I wrote mountains of notes for the gifts propelling me into adulthood. That seems to be the last time that I was consistent about writing thank you letters. I am ashamed to say that I did not keep up with the tradition of writing thank you notes, despite receiving wonderful and thoughtful gifts for many occasions over the years. In fact, I am just now writing thank you notes for the gifts I received at Christmas. It’s for the first time in a long time.
In mid-January, some people’s New Year’s Resolutions have already crashed and burned. I have always loved the tradition of coming up with resolutions and trying to find meaningful ones that will stick. In the last few years, I have tried a different tack, by getting very specific about one or two goals, or going with a larger theme that reflects all aspects of my life. This year, I have decided to focus on gratitude. I want gratitude to become my praxis, my practice. This is less about self-improvement and more about a spiritual shift after some hard-won lessons. This is something I want to become a lifelong practice, not just a quickly-expressed-but-easily-forgotten resolution.
I have read about people keeping gratitude journals, or making lists of things that they are grateful for. I love both of those ideas. So now I plan to jot down things I am grateful for in my all-purpose journal that also serves as a repository for writing ideas, dreams, goals, meditations, and all other things. I think it will be fun to find bits of gratitude sprinkled among the pages. When appropriate, I will also take pictures of things that spark my gratitude, like sunrises, a good meal, and glimpses of a full moon. Taking time to write down my gratitude and to take pictures of my gratitude, I hope, will help me to be more grateful, to more fully realize my gratitude.
I also want to examine gratitude, and not just be grateful for the good things and the beautiful things. I want to find gratitude in all. I want to find gratitude in the dark moments, in the sad times, in the things that might otherwise be difficult to find gratitude.
As well, I realize that these are all internal moments. I also want to share my gratitude for the people whom I love. I have decided to pick up that beautiful, and ancient, art of letter writing and go beyond the traditional thank you note. I plan to write thank you letters to the people I love and really say thank you and express what they mean to me. It might be on a birthday, or when I think of a friend, or when I know someone is having a hard time.
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”–John F. Kennedy
The quote from Kennedy makes me realize that gratitude is so much more than saying thank you. It is taking the meaning deep into our hearts, and living it fully. It means saying thank you for the big and small, aloud and in the quiet ways we live. In reality, it means writing the thank you notes for gifts, but also sharing our gifts of talent and time with others. It means being present. It means being open. It means living fully.
“It is through gratitude for the present moment that the spiritual dimension of life opens up.”–Eckhart Tolle
Here’s to a new year and a new practice. Here’s to gratitude. What does gratitude mean to you? How do you express gratitude? What is the practice that you hope will bring more meaning and joy into your life?
“Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct,” Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, February 4, 1968
The holidays come careening like a noisy parade, despite their arrival in the midst of the quiet beginning of winter. For a bit, we forget about the silence, while decorating and baking and wrapping and celebrating. It is in the darkest time of the year, that we find the meaning of light and look forward to its arrival.
One of my favorite rituals is taking down the Christmas tree and all the decorations, at the end of the holiday season while the year is still young. Some people I know, as soon as the last present has been unwrapped, swiftly pack up all the ornaments and vacuum the last of the evergreen needles, fake or real, from the floor the day after Christmas. I like to wait until Epiphany or the 12th day of Christmas. In the Christian tradition, Epiphany is the day that the wise men finally reached the birthplace of Jesus. This year, to celebrate Epiphany, I waited for a windy morning in the new year, but not the actual day, which is January 6.
The word epiphany also means “a sudden revelation or insight.” In this case, an epiphany is the proverbial “light bulb moment” when one has a great idea or something becomes clear. Two huge epiphanies occurred to me in November. It’s weird how a moment of clarity can be the point in which everything changes, even if quietly and internally.
I like that Epiphany, also celebrated by taking down the tree and other decorations, is both a celebration of the “light of the world” and a time of removing those lights. Metaphors abound.
A couple of mornings after the new year dawned, I brewed a cup of coffee and shivered into my favorite sweatshirt with the moon’s phases printed on the front. I pulled the two plastic boxes from the closet and then began the undressing, the unadornment, of my apartment.
I unplugged the lights and took down the wreath from the back of the door in the kitchen. I removed the electric chile ristra lights, given to me last year by a good friend, from the wall by the stove. I remembered to pick up the small holy family creche near the entry way. I took the punched tin angel down from the top of the tree and returned it to the shelf for its year-round spot in my living room.
Then I began the routine of plucking the ornaments one-by-one off of the tree. The ornaments are really like specimens in a time capsule of my life. I possess ornaments given to me when I was born, and a felt stocking decoration I made in pre-school. There are souvenir ornaments from travels, including a wooden ornament of Nebraska I bought on a spring road trip to see the sandhill cranes. Each year, my mom gives us an ornament for our trees as a Christmas present and a celebration of the twelve months that have just passed.
This year, I added a pressed tin star ornament, as a memento from a summer trip to a colonial Spanish “living museum” near Santa Fe. My stepmother sent me a small ornament she had made with a picture of my dad at its center. He passed away in March and I appreciate her sweet handiwork and his familiar half smile-half smirk in the photo.
I wrapped the breakable ornaments in much-wrinkled tissue paper and placed the softer ornaments in old holiday cookie tins. I thought about the memories of Christmases past, my sisters and I wearing matching nightgowns as we unwrapped presents. I remembered playing with my cousins on Christmas eve in the warmth of my grandmother’s kitchen while the adults sat and talked around the tree in the living room. I recalled the year in college, when I almost didn’t make it home, stuck in the Duluth and Chicago airports due to a heavy, heavy fog and then a holiday’s helping of snow just as the clouds began to clear.
I thought about making Christmas cookies with my younger sister in our years as roommates in Colorado. I remembered the many holidays hosted by my older sister, the yummy food with the cacophony of family political debates and marathon trivia games. This year and last, I stayed home in Albuquerque and had quiet holidays.
This year brought sadness, with the passing of my dad. There was also a bit of upheaval, that had more to do with growth and some confrontation both with myself and with others. There has been sadness, grief, mistakes, arguments, deep discussions, joyful reunions, silent partings, and wonder. There has been much clearing away of the old: old stories, old baggage, old untruths. There has been a planting of new seeds: new truths, new friends, new relationships, new beginnings, and new beginnings within old relationships. There has been forgiveness: of self, of others. There have been epiphanies.
The new year begins. We pack away the old. We begin in the quiet, sparse winter. We try new. We touch the scars, and we feel the healing. We forge ahead. We find the epiphanies. We want change. We know, though, that change must begin by learning from the past and trying something different. We have to clear away the old growth to make way for new growth. We know that sometimes our noisy proclamations are not the real changes, but instead, the genuine transformation takes place in the quiet moments when we reach out anew.