Thursday, February 28, 2008

A journey to devotion

Earth laughs in flowers.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I have said before, I am a spring child and I am passionate about my flowers. I have been this way all my life, just crazy-in-love with flowers of all kinds. All my life I have collected them, coveted them, and demanded them from unyielding lovers. I have bouquets in almost every room of my house, little gifts to the household gods—“please, please help me keep my home harmonious” I say as I set them in their spots.

Changing flowers and their water is a little devotional part of my housework, an inner cleansing and harmonizing of my space. I have always loved this idea of devotional service to the home. It has been in the background of my imagination for over ten years now. It is an attitude towards life that I strive to cultivate.

I remember reading a passage in one of my favorite books, ¡Yo! By Julia Alvarez, and feeling so happy that another has my odd habits: ”The minute they are in the house all the spirit waters have to be changed before she can relax or even unpack her suitcase. Don’t ask her why. At certain windows there are saucers filled with water, again don’t ask her why…She is not a wannabe witch and she is not a leftover hippy…These superstitions—he mustn’t call them that—are part of her island background.” Reading those lines for the first time felt so perfect to me because my rituals were also inspired by an island culture.

At the tender age of 21, I traveled to Indonesia with my best friend. We stayed in Bali for most of the month, devoting ourselves to exploring that beautifully exotic place. They say that Bali is the true Garden of Eden, and it truly is one of the most sensual, redolent places I have ever been lucky enough to experience.

Every morning that I awoke on that island, I was greeted by the strong scent of burning incense and…garbage! It was an admittedly odd juxtaposition of scents but, in an indescribable way, hauntingly pleasant! Every morning the Balinese women could be seen sweeping the front of their homes. After this duty was performed, they would carefully place a tray on their impeccably clean front porch. The tray, filled with a most beautiful assortment of colorful fruits and neat squares of rice, was always set against a backdrop of burning incense. I was struck by this simple ritual offering, of floating prayers of gratitude and renewal on wafts of smoke and anchoring them in the substance of the fruit and the rice and the rising of the sun.

I always thought, in my perfect life, I would make a similar offering to begin my day. In my perfect life, I would quietly entice the gods to pave my future hours with joy. I would inspire them with offerings of beauty to perfume their thoughts and make them smile.

After I returned home, however, my life quickly gained momentum and the idea went dormant somewhere in the back of my mind. I ended one relationship and began a new one (with my future husband) and we moved to Santa Barbara together. In the first couple of months that we lived there, we stayed at a sort of halfway house until we found our good spot on the outskirts of the city. The in-between-house was run as a collective. We all worked for an hour and, in return, we had a maid and our meals cooked. The food was all organic and vegetarian. The woman who ran the home had studied with a guru in India and that had inspired her to create this place for like-minded individuals to coexist.

I usually cleaned for my daily hour of service. They had a particular way of cleaning and whenever a room had been completed, it was the custom of the home to leave a stick of burning incense as the final touch. Suddenly that dormant idea in the back of my head began growing again! I was amazed to re-encounter this beautiful idea a half a world away from its birthplace!

Again, my life gained momentum and I moved, this time into an apartment with two male friends along with now-husband/then-boyfriend. That was an adventure all it’s own and needless to say the idea of enticing any gods went dormant until one day in one of my Religious Studies classes I was inspired by the topic of “Puja.”

Puja is the devotional practices one performs for whoever they are devoted to and is mainly a Hindu/Buddhist idea. The concept was so beautiful to me and was so obviously the underbelly of my experiences lighting incense to end a cleaning in the communal home, and in the witnessing of the morning Balinese practices.

The concept of puja ignited all the dormant ideas and excited their possibilities. I added, to my perfect view of my perfect day, beginning it with puja to my body, mind, and home. That I would face the rising sun with exercise, a cleaning of the body with breath, followed by a cleaning of my home, leaving each room sweetly smelling of incense. I would leave a gift of flowers in each room to inspire my gods to smile on me.

Of course, I do not do this every day. But, after ten years of cultivation, the idea is no longer dormant; it has steadily grown and solidified and now occupies permanent space in my consciousness. It is a framework that continually defines my mornings; I can see where I stand in my life against this background of devotion. Every day I work towards balance and beauty in all things. Every day I celebrate it in flowers and scent. Maybe it’s a bit too romantic an idea that my practices affect the gods attitudes, but I do believe Emerson’s idea that flowers are the earth laughing. And that makes me smile. And isn’t that what it's all about anyway?


Friday, February 22, 2008

Exodus to pantry freedom

First we eat, then we do everything else.
-MFK Fisher

Today is "cleaning out the refrigerator and restocking it" day. This day never fails to truly boggle my mind. You would think that after all these years of having to shop for food, stock my refrigerator and pantry, and eat that I would be accomplished at this feat by now, maybe even proficient at it, but I am not. My struggle is no longer in actually stocking the refrigerator but is now how to do it economically, and in an environmentally sustainable manner, which is a whole other blog.

There were, of course, the years when I did not worry too much about what I had to eat. This is a thing of great hilarity for my sisters who have all been just a little more practical and on top of this whole "life" thing than I. I am...just not that way...but I do provide lots of comic relief. One way my sisters have to amuse themselves is with this little game they created in which they call one another up, guess what is in my refrigerator, make appropriate bets, and then call me to confirm who will win. I think it could be actually defined as a sport in their collective minds.

This is how it would go: My phone rings on a weekend afternoon and I unsuspectingly answer, it is one of my sisters calling for our usual weekend roundup. I am met, however, by the sounds of gasping for air as one of my sisters tries to compose herself for actual speech. After much giggling, one of my sisters would finally speak: “Jo, we were just wondering if you could do us a favor and look in your refrigerator, Practical Sis and I were just kind of…err…wondering if you might have like maybe a package of blue cheese, some limp broccoli, and maybe half a bottle of wine in there?” I would dutifully go to my refrigerator and, by God! How in the hell did they know what was in my refrigerator! I would then, just to prove them wrong (although I am sure it just caused the other sis to win whatever bet they had going), I would finish the bottle of wine while eating last of the blue cheese. “Nope, just some limp broccoli” I would reply only to be drowned out again by wild giggling!

Yes, it was bad for a while. My few attempts at cooking consisted of reading a recipe, going to the store after work, painstakingly compiling the list of appropriate ingredients, coming home, and making the meal. Needless to say, on the nights I cooked, we usually ate dinner around 10 or 10:30pm. I did this for years. I had never thought of stocking my kitchen with food to make when I needed to cook. Are you speaking domestic or something?

At work, my very practical friend “T,” who knew how to stock her kitchen like nobodies business, and I started hanging out at each other’s homes more and more. She began to see that my empty cupboards and refrigerator were not just a passing phase, that it was actually...gasp!...the way I lived! She decided to fix me up post haste! For my 29th birthday she enlisted our close mututal friends and hatched a plan to get my kitchen stocked.

And when I say stocked, I mean STOCKED, like all-in-capitals-yodeling-from-mountaintops stocked! They supplied me with not only staples and spices but also with dishes and glassware! I had been relying on the three plates my mother-in-law had given us along with an assortment of glasses collected from various work-related wine tastings. I sat overwhelmed trying to keep my mouth from gaping open in wonder as I opened package after package of carefully wrapped…beans and rice and pasta and dried oregano and curry…and the list went on and on in quite amazing detail! After I had opened the last carefully wrapped package of foodstuffs, they kindly and slowly explained what to DO with all these new exotic items now lining my surprised and no longer bare cupboards.

And that is how I was finally turned around. Having a stocked kitchen for the first time in my life created the fertile ground needed to sprout an epiphany: that this stocking thing was not half bad, that although it pained me to do the shopping, it was much nicer to come home and have things with which to make dinner. Most importantly, it taught me how to be a better and more inventive cook, that creating a meal could be more of an improvisational art than a mundane following of directions. I became a culinary artist! I was inspired! I was in control! Now I was cooking!

So that is how I came to have a real, functioning kitchen. Now when my phone rings and all I can hear is wild giggling trying to control itself on the other line, I can say with authority, “This may take some time, I have quite a bit more around than half a package of blue cheese and some limp broccoli. You might want to pour yourself a glass of wine, or make a nice cup of Constant Comment with honey AND milk, or perhaps brew some coffee, or make yourself a G&T, or maybe a hot chocolate, if you have some, because I know I do!”

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The creation of Malentine's Day

Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.
-Elsa Schiaparelli, Italian Designer.

Thank God I started running because I have been eating like a QUEEN lately, the descent into hedonism began on Valentine’s Day. Valentine’s day is a day I adore because it honors love and I am so unabashedly and proudly ROMANTICAL that I cannot help it if it doesn’t make me a little giddy. This Valentine’s Day, however, my lover was feeling particularly loving and gave me one of the best Valentine’s Days EVER.

I awoke on the day of the love-fest feeling particularly groovy and, having finished my blog AND morning stoutness exercises (Winne-the-Pooh anyone??? I still read and love Mr. Winnie Ther Pooh), I was about to go off to get some champagne and bon bons as an early gift for myself, only to be met at the door by my loving husband returning home with a box of See’s Candy and the most lovely 13 (he even made it a bakers dozen!) lavender roses. And, if you can believe, the day only got better!

Later in the afternoon, after I had eaten all the See’s candy, my love said he was planning our dinner and I was to be in no way, shape, or form part of its conception, labor, or birth. That said, he exiled me to the living room where I sat cozily couch-bound watching the food network to my heart’s content. I was glad because I felt rather ill from eating the entire box of Sees Candy and needed to recover! I could smell delicious things emanating from the kitchen and could hear my husband talking to himself as he always does when he is either thinking deeply about something really good or really bad. From what I could hear, things like: “now we’re talking!” and “look at this little gem, this little jewel is just about ready!” and so on, I thought that it must be quite good whatever was transpiring.

Moments later, he arrived at my couch-like throne carrying a beautiful plate and glass of sparkling wine, my first course, my amuse-bouche, so to speak (I have always loved this French term—a little mouth amusement before the main course, those French! Maybe all the formality and Cartesian order they adore merely creates the boundaries with which they cherishingly protect their overly sensuous natures)! The amuse-bouche was a plate filled with perfectly ripe, succulent mango slices, roses of proscuitto, and little sticks of pecorino romano cheese. It was just the most interesting and sublime combination of flavors! Luscious!

Needless to say, I ate all of this and by the time I was finished, was allowed into the kitchen to eat the next course and help with the salad dressing. My husband and I have very specific jobs in the kitchen: he usually fries, sautés and grills while I chop, make dressings, sauces and side dishes. We work very well together. Synergy is what I believe it is called. I happily munched on bacon wrapped shrimp dipped in his homemade bbq sauce and whipped together a balsamic vinaigrette for his spinach salad with bacon and red onion.

And then it was time to eat, REALLY eat! He whisked me out of the kitchen and brought me a glass of wine (Bogle’s Petite Syrah—one of my favorites). I was then presented with the most beautiful plate of the most scrumptious food…bacon-wrapped filet mignon topped with melted pecorino cheese, perfectly seared buttery scallops, and fresh green spinach salad studded with bits of bacon and thin rounds of purple-y onion. It was one of the most memorable and delicious meals I have ever been lucky enough to enjoy. The pecorino was amazing with the steak; it gave it this salty, sweet kick. The scallops were succulent and perfectly seared. And the freshness of the salad was a perfect counterpoint to the richness of the meal.

I have to say that I am blessed and very lucky to be so loved by my husband and to have one so thoughtful of my romanticism. I feel so lucky, in fact, that I have created a man’s Valentines Day, just for him. I am going to celebrate it exactly half a year from Valentines Day, on August 14, and it will be a day just for him, just as he had a day just for me, filled with all the things that he loves. I am naming it Malentine’s Day!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Love is a many splendor thing...

Where there is great love there are always miracles.
-Willa Cather

I just wanted to wish everyone a happy valentines day! I hope that you are all spoiled rotten…but if for some reason you are not, or if you don’t have a significant other, or significant other is OTHERwise inclined, or even if you do and are spoiled…remember to spoil YOURSELF! This is a woman’s holiday and you can celebrate love as much as you want, however you want, and it should start with you!

Celebrate love in its fullness! There are so many different kinds of love and they are all kaleidoscope-y and beautiful! There is lover love, friendship love, family love, pet love, all kinds of love! I could go on and on! Celebrate it all and start with yourself!

Anyways, go get some bon bons and champagne and your favorite flowers and enjoy the day! You’ll be in good company as I am about to do just that!


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Running Thoughts

If you want to find the answers to the Big Questions about your soul, you’d best begin with the Little Answers about your body.
-George Sheehan

Devo farmi le ossa is how they say it in Italian. "I need to make my bones."
-Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat Pray Love

I have started running again. It is so satisfying to get into the groove and run, run, run. There is something so relaxing about the rhythm of my breath against the dance of my feet. My thoughts slowly quieting as my breath takes over, the incessant mind-chatter bowing out gracefully. Finally sweating, I am free. It is a finite goal that hooks you; it is the one thing I know I can accomplish from start to finish!

It has taken me a long time to get here. I have been slowly working back up to running since giving birth. The first efforts were agonizing--EVERYTHING jiggled, even my face! My back went out in short order and that was it for running for a good long time. So I did what I could. I took long walks with Babou and my excitable dog. I took longer and longer walks and started adding hills. Now I take a long walk and run most days of the week. A year later!

It is a weird thing to say, I know, but I think all the weight I put on during my pregnancy was actually a blessing in disguise. Having so much weight to lose is teaching me consistency—how to consistently take care of myself. I have never exercised so regularly in my life and I have never been in better cardiovascular shape (even though I am still overweight). It is teaching me how to eat healthfully for the long run, to eat in a way I can maintain and set a good example for my daughter. I am trying to eat reasonably, which is an oddly and refreshingly simple concept, yet so abstract!

I work on these new habits every day and am trying to be gentle with myself. The other night I was mentally going through my day while waiting to fall asleep. In an objective moment of clarity, I realized I was picking out everything I had not done or accomplished, all the failings of the day. I was berating myself! I was making myself feel like a failure. In that moment I realized that that was not me and I would no longer allow myself to be treated that way. Since then I have not only made a conscious effort to befriend myself and notice all the positive things that I have accomplished, but also to blow off the rest as aberrations that will soon right themselves naturally. Every day is a new challenge and I try I think of it as another opportunity to practice.

This new practice is truly making a difference in my life. I find myself making healthier choices more easily. I have found that by allowing myself to make mistakes, that I don’t make as many of them. And that is making all the difference.


Monday, February 11, 2008


Perhaps loving something is the only starting place there is for making your life your own.
-Alice Koller

Spring is here, I can feel it like sap rising through my veins. On my morning walks with Babou, and my excitable dog, I can smell it in the air, the smell of green, the smell of spring. I can see the buds pushing their way into leaves, the grass becoming lush. The wind is softer now and it caresses the trees in a way that reminds me of a mother tousling her child’s hair. I am in love with spring.

I am a bit of a fickle lover because I always yearn for, and celebrate, each changing of the season. But spring has always been my favorite. Perhaps it’s because I was born in spring and its essence was knit into my lungs upon my first breath. There is something contagious about it, about its enthusiastic celebration of renewal, of its thrusting green energy, of its lush display of beauty. I can almost feel the momentum, the great lifting of spring and it is so welcome after the rest and quiet of winter.

I am continually amazed of how each season affects me. And yet, isn’t it the most natural of all things to affect you? Life understands there is a season to everything, just as there is in life. It makes me glad to know that nature also has moods, and that each mood is dependent on the last and next; each growing in and out of one another, intrinsically meshed and interdependent. I am amazed at this wisdom unfolding just outside my door, teaching me in its quiet way all the joy I need to know to begin falling in love with life again.


Thursday, February 7, 2008

A Catalyst for Change

We are the ones we have been waiting for.
-Hopi Prayer.

Mary Alice, again, has roused me to reply to her blog with a blog myself. I have also used the quote that she used on her blog because this perfectly, I feel, pertains to the issue. This is, obviously, a topic close to my heart.

Yes, identity is difficult as you change through life. One’s roles are always in flux and those Saturn returns (which also happen every seven years or so) are very difficult to go through no matter how diligently we have given ourselves what we needed to grow and stay connected. Change is no respecter of self-awareness; it throws it out the window to start fresh, to change. With motherhood this change is dramatic. The center of the universe shifts from ourselves to our children and it’s difficult to maintain a strong center during this shift and not lose yourself completely. The rhythms that make up a mother’s day can feel like imploding, it is such a closed and constant and personal rhythm.

That is why I started blogging, so that I could connect with others, not just my friends and family, to make friends with a larger world to keep mine open and me open in the only way I knew how within the constraints of being a stay-at-home mom. I think that this is one of the main keys to maintaining equilibrium through the changes of motherhood: doing what you need to do to maintain YOU. And that is the tricky part, making sure that you honor and respect your needs and give yourself what you need to make it through the changes intact.

Your identity will change; you are changed. I think that this is what is particularly brilliant about life: growing. Everything on earth grows and changes and so do we—we are continually called upon to grow as we define ourselves against an ever-changing backdrop that is our life--identity changes because we juxtapose our identity with life, and life is always changing.

You have to know yourself to make it through these changes. Our landscape changes and we are called to ask, what does this new backdrop accentuate in me? How does this change the way I think, feel, and act? How does this new circumstance define me? If you don’t know yourself, you will, you will have to; life necessitates it. Those shifting times when I feel like I am driving in neutral are necessary and uncomfortable. Someone once said that you have to lose yourself to find yourself and it is so true.

These defining identity issues are not unique to parenthood. Becoming a mother is just one set of circumstances that allow you to evolve and change. Evolution of self is not unique to motherhood; identity is unique to selfhood. Motherhood is just one way, one set of circumstances, in which it occurs.

My final thought on the topic is that it is much easier (I find) to get through change if you don’t take it all too seriously--least of all yourself. If life up to this point has taught me anything, it is to not take myself so seriously; to laugh at life and myself and try to go with it as much as possible and enjoy it as much as possible. I try to do this every day as much as I can. Sometimes I fail miserably, and sometimes I am wildly successful, but through it all I am myself and the more I honor that, the easier it gets. I think that there is an inner knowing, a voice inside you that helps—especially when you honor it. And I think that if we listened to it and acted on its wisdom that we would realize that we are, indeed, the one we have been waiting for…that we have been all along. That life has been slowly washing away excess ego to allow our real self to shine through and inspire others to be themselves, too. That it is not only okay, but meant to be.


Saturday, February 2, 2008

Beauty is as beauty does

Always be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second rate-version of somebody else.
-Judy Garland

Beauty is such an important discussion because of its ubiquitous and often negative nature. The messages that women receive from our culture about beauty are mixed, to say the least. And difficult to attain, to say the least. We do live in a society that glorifies youth, thinness and a certain cup size (perky too, please). Most women cannot attain these standards. I personally used to think it was a conspiracy to hold us down—if they (whoever “they” are) can keep us occupied with trying to meet these abnormal standards, then perhaps we might not be so focused say, on the glass ceiling, for instance.

We live in this culture, immersed like tea bags in steaming water, and we can’t help but absorb cultural standards of beauty. In my twenties,
and before, as much as I hated it, it ruled me. I was constantly on some diet, exercising like mad, trying to be as beautiful as I could be basically to enjoy the power and social blessing that it provides. It was hard. I smoked instead of eat…trying to fill the spaces missing, or the moments I was procrastinating. I would go in and out of balance, but, for the most, part I was inconsistent and erratic. My beauty was mostly superficial and only worked because I was young. (I am generalizing here because I did achieve some times of good balance and was extremely healthy, but this was less of the time.)

Now that I am in my thirties and have a daughter, my perspective has changed. Just watching my body go through the process of pregnancy and birth gives me a newfound respect for its function. I now realize my body is my ally, a friend to be respected and honored, not just drug along the road of life serving ME. We are partners. I also realize that life is long and consistent habits are what are important. What I do most of the time is what counts. And, most importantly, setting a good example for my daughter is paramount. Being married and loved unconditionally helps so much in all of this because the pressure of dating and other women can be fierce and you have to be stronger than those sometimes self-esteem beating times.

I think that beauty is being healthy and feeling comfortable in your skin, doing the best you can with what you’ve got at ANY AGE. I think that it is a personal issue, too. Everyone has a different idea of what is beautiful and everyone has a different idea of doing the best with what you’ve got. As long as you are doing your best to be your best, I think that is beautiful.

This is my personal take on what makes me feel beautiful. I feel beautiful when I have been active in my self-care, when I have been loving myself consistently and giving myself what I need to shine. Usually, if I am heavier, it is because I am avoiding something and nervously eating or drinking as a form of avoidance. If I am passionately involved in my life, I usually don’t these problems, I am too busy living. If I am taking diligent care of myself I am exercising every day. I am one of those very high-energy people who need to run HARD every day. It’s actually more for my mental peace than physical, really. It’s like rewinding my body and brain. And if I can’t run (like I hadn’t until lately because I was too heavy), I hike. I need to be outside, every day. And some yoga helps to soften and center me. I also need time alone daily, to reflect. Writing helps with this--a rewinding of my brain as well.

These things I try to do regularly, and they make me feel beautiful when I do. Practicing regular self-care, whatever that is to you, creates a lifetime of beauty, a lifetime of radiance. I think that when you practice regular self-care, you are essentially creating a space for your spirit to reside; you are inviting your spirit to participate in your life. Spirit, I am convinced, is a great lover of beauty, of the FEELING of beauty consistent self-care engenders, that joy being the best you can be provides. Soulless beauty is empty, I know there have been times in my life when I was not taking care of myself and, as a result, my spirit left until I could provide a home for it again. Beauty has so much more to do with than just beauty.

I think that it is our duty to be the best we can and support one another in our goals and in our acceptance of ourselves. To seek role models like ourselves. My personal role model is Kate Hudson. Perhaps it is not that strong of me, but she really helped me finally see that you can be small chested and still very sexy. She reminds me of me and inspires me to be more me.

In the end, beauty is a very personal issue; one that we must all formulate our thoughts on. Its pervasive and negative nature make it dangerous not to have an opinion. For me, it is most important as I now have a daughter. And having a daughter makes me realize that I was once a girl too and to treat myself kindly consistently. In a way, Babou is teaching me so that I can teach her.


Friday, February 1, 2008

A Beautiful Topic

My dear sister Mary Alice, From the Frontlines, has written on a very interesting topic today. My comment to her got rather long. I have A LOT to say on the topic of beauty, but have busy morning so can't post full thoughts till this evening (read: baby in bed) I said, have lots to say. In the meantime, I have always felt this poem perfectly portrays a beautiful woman and perfectly inspires me to be one. (Mrs. G readers: Note: I am not selling this poem! I state again, if Mrs. G is going to copyright pergatory, I will be right there with her, hopefully will serve cocktails there, the damned have a tendency to get edgy without them).

by Maya Angelou

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies
I'm not cute or built to suit a model's fashion size
But when I start to tell them
They think I'm telling lies.
I say
It's in the reach of my arms
The span of my hips
The stride of my steps
The curl of my lips.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman
That's me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please
And to a man
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees
Then they swarm around me
A hive of honey bees.
I say
It's the fire in my eyes
And the flash of my teeth
The swing of my waist
And the joy in my feet.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman
That's me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me
They try so much
But they can't touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them
They say they still can't see.
I say
It's in the arch of my back
The sun of my smile
The ride of my breasts
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman
That's me.

Now you understand
Just why my head's not bowed
I don't shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud
When you see me passing
It ought to make you proud.
I say
It's in the click of my heels
The bend of my hair
The palm of my hand
The need for my care.
'Cause I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman
That's me.