Sweet Surrender

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Glorious as they are, holidays are also “fend off the sweets” time for me.  I wish I could write a post about how very simple it is to just give up sugar. Or eat it occasionally, moderately, or minimally. Even around the holidays.

My earliest memory of sugar is at about the age of three.  Alone in the kitchen, in the home we shared with my grandmother, I remember opening the refrigerator and finding a jar of butterscotch sauce. Curious, I opened it, dipping my index finger in and licking off the thick, sticky substance.  I was in heaven.  Why hadn’t I ever had this before? I reached in again, this time swirling my finger around to collect as much as it could hold, tasting again the sweet, buttery flavor that I would love forevermore.

I was just slightly older when my grandmother, having noticed I seemed to love the maple syrup more than the pancakes at breakfast, poured some into a bowl and handed me a spoon. She wanted to make me happy. So I sat at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of maple syrup just like it was soup. This was back in the day that we didn’t discuss the harmful effects of sugar. There was not a lot of talk about diabetes, heart disease or obesity. What you ate and your health were seemingly unrelated issues.

When my father went out at night and I stayed at home with my grandmother, we would sit in the living room watching television shows, each with our stash of m&ms, sweet tarts, and my personal favorite, malted milk balls.  I used to love how they come in what looks like a milk carton, and I would slowly pour them into my mouth, offering myself a “drink” of chocolate.

My father would remind my grandmother not to let me watch adult shows, and that if Johnny Carson came on it meant I’d stayed up too late.  But he never told her what I couldn’t eat. So there we’d sit together, through The Dick Van Dyke  Show, The Waltons, and Lawrence Welk, eating one piece of candy after the other until the news would come on and, seeing my grandmother asleep in her big chair, I would get up off the couch, throw away my wrappers, and trod off to bed.

During holidays, I would amuse the adults by heading straight for the sweets, sampling nearly everything that was available. Brownies with cream cheese, Christmas cookies in every color, and scotcheroos, the name my grandmother had given to her special rice crispy treats. One year her scotcheroos came out especially dense and so my cousins  renamed them ‘hard-to-chews’.  But hard as they were, it did not stop me from eating them.

After the festivities had died down, usually at bedtime, I would come down with a stomach ache. My father would find me holding my belly, doubled over and moaning. Feeling sorry for me, he’d sit me up on the kitchen counter while he got out the pepto-bismol. You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson, but this was a regular occurrence. It was around the time the famous Stanford Marshmallow Test was beginning. Surely I would’ve been one of the kids who failed.

Despite my love of sugar, I never struggled with weight. I was a tiny child, prompting people to exclaim, “Where do you put all those sweets?”  If only my sweet tooth, as it was affectionately called, had been left behind with childhood… But childhood habits don’t shed easily, and so despite knowing full well how this craving can cause me harm, it still occupies my body with a bizarre persistence, reminding me of my weakness that hasn’t just gone away.  I am the heroin addict, the alcoholic, the gambler, the petty thief.  Except that I can find my fix for a dollar, at the local store, the social gathering, the meeting, and occasionally in my own kitchen cabinets. It is brought to me on platters, delivered in a pretty basket at my doorstep. Whenever I think I have a grip on it, there it is, taunting and tempting me. Birthdays, holidays, end of school, start of summer cookouts, a thank you from a neighbor- I’ve determined that we celebrate, give thanks, start and end every occasion in life with a piece of cake.

All hope is not lost though. When I’m at my best, I like to see the struggle as an opportunity to see what happens in those spaces when I don’t reach for the sugar.  I believe something wonderful can come from something difficult.  Today, just for today, I reach for whatever is beneath the craving, to the absurd nature of this habit. In a sweet surrender, I allow it to surface, express itself, release me from its grip.

Holiday decor, simply put

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My desire to minimize the amount of stuff I own includes all manner of decorations. I was never one for nicknacks, seeing them only as moderately cute dust collecting things that our children would some day have to feel guilty about throwing away. So my home has plenty of surface space to decorate around the holidays. End tables,  a mantel, and doorways are all adequate places to strew all sorts of festive matter. But my preference to keep my indoor space simple and uncluttered doesn’t change when holidays come around. In fact, I’ve found it all sorts of fun to simplify my decorating year round.  I have been delighted by how easy and affordable it is to change the seasonal look with subtle, but aesthetically pleasing decor.

Clear glass vases can hold  dried flowers during spring and summer that can be swapped out for vibrant red silk flowers in winter. Table runners are easy pieces to change with the season. Clear lights can be draped over large plants to brighten up a dreary November. Vines of holly in winter, or artificial foliage in fall, can line a mantel perfectly.

I don’t buy holiday dishes, ever. They would require extra storage space, time to take them out of storage and wash them, time to put them away, and effort to search for new pieces to replace the ones that break. I am not even tempted by the cute holiday pictures crafted onto plates and bowls. My dishes are neutral and I let the napkins, table runner, and holiday food announce the festivities. My boxes of decorations are minimal and my trips to the attic are few and far between. It brings me  joy to beautify and shift my environment with ease.

Seeing Christmas lights and wreaths up well into March makes me wish  the owners would give themselves permission to bring the decorating  down a notch, to a level that can happen with ease, both at the start of the season, and at the end.  What goes up, really should come down.  Or consider skipping the holiday decorating altogether. Any visual pleasure that took place over the holidays, surely is offset by the unsightliness of Christmas decor when  we’re approaching springtime.  Like nail polish that stays on for far too long, chipping and unlovely, some things are better left undone to begin with.

My decorating strategy may be too sparse for some. It really is a matter of personal preference. And like clearing out a closet or a cabinet, I just can’t quite put my finger on why this simplicity  feels so good to me. I feel light.  I look around at the subtle sparkle of the season, and it feels like the holiday spirit has room to breath.

Lessons in Writing

These are lessons I am learning, or rather relearning, during National Novel Writing Month. They apply to writing, and to life.

#1. Stick to my top priorities. Long ago, I learned that I am happiest when I narrow my priority list down to just a few, and make conscious choices that revolve around those. Health, family and writing trump everything else for me, and I think my life reflects that most of the time. But writing only recently climbed to the top three, and I’m forming new habits around this. National Novel Writing Month is helping me move toward  cementing this habit into my daily life. Which brings me to number two.

#2. Daily repetition is what forms a habit. It is much harder to think about writing than it is to actually be writing. Sitting down is the hardest part. And like exercise, at least for me, its easiest to do it early. That way I am not thinking, all day long, about the words I have yet to write. Participating in National Novel Writing Month led me to set a daily word count goal and to give myself permission to stop writing only after it had been met. It’s only been eighteen days of daily writing. I wouldn’t say its exactly habit for me yet. Some days are still a struggle to put myself in the chair. But I can feel it slowly getting harder not to write than to write.

#3. Set goals, but stay in the moment. This seems to happen automatically while writing. At the page, I am present. Time flies by, words flow through.  Sticking to #1 helps this process, because a cluttered life would continuously pull me out of the moment. Being able to focus only on writing while I am writing is a beautiful thing.

#4. And for this I am thankful. I am thankful every day that I get to write. I remind myself of this when I don’t feel like writing. I get to write. I have the time to write. How lucky is that? And then I do it, knowing that I get to do it again tomorrow.

#5 Enjoy the journey. If I think too far ahead I may never move forward. What if I never finish this book to my satisfaction? What if I never publish it and this is all a waste of time? These thoughts will halt all progress. There are no guarantees in writing. So you’ve got to enjoy the process. Even when a book is published, you’ve got to want to start the process all over again, and to love that process. Even when you hate it. Even when it’s hard. Because in those moments when the words come easily, or when they don’t and a struggle produces the perfect sentence, the journey is sweet. And to never try this writing thing would be the hardest thing of all.

Have a Mediocre Holiday

This post may be a tad early for the holiday season, but I heard Christmas music today and two days ago, I saw Santa at the mall. So I wanted to reach you before the frenzy swept you away. Chances are, the holiday madness doesn’t have you in its grip quite yet. And just what is The Madness? It is Everything You Must Do in order to have a great holiday. It is fulfilling grand expectations, your own or those of someone else.  Does the thought of that grab you at the sternum and trickle down to your gut? Does it excite you, but at the same time hit you with a twinge of dread?

Here’s my suggestion.  Change the goal from having a fabulous holiday to having a mediocre one. Mediocre holidays are much gentler on the psyche. You know the saying, what goes up must come down?  The holiday mood- anticipation, excitement, chaos. It all has to come from somewhere and it has to go somewhere when it’s over! The time, money, and energy it takes to create an amazing holiday is likely siphoned out of your daily life, leading up to the festivities. Afterwards, the crash.

What if you decided not to steal from  whatever it is that makes your daily life good?  Your exercise routine, time with loved ones, alone time, your creative endeavor – whatever it is that keeps you sane and happy- you could guard with your life. Because every ordinary day IS your life.

Which brings me to this. Maybe you welcome the chaos.  Maybe you prefer not to simplify your holidays, and you make that choice with a happy heart. If that’s the case, then I think you are amazing. I mean that. I bet you are one of those people who multitask with ease. You are probably cooking dinner and attending to your bleeding five-year old while reading this blog. All with a smile on your face and skillfully, too. That is not me. While writing, I might forget to take the pumpkin pie out of the oven. If I am deep enough in thought, I may or may not notice if the smoke alarm goes off. I really shouldn’t do two things at once. But the upside of that is, I can be really present for the one thing I am doing.

I look forward to strategically placing a few holiday decorations in my home. I love candles and clear Christmas lights and fern across my mantel. I want to be with family, with some good food and a few presents. I want to enjoy them before the holidays too, though. And after. No rushing, no stress, no frenzy, no crash.  There’s something to be said for being a holiday underachiever.  I’m saying no to the high of an amazing holiday season, and yes to the peace of a mediocre one.

The Sweet Space of Less

I detest clutter. It feels bad to me, almost suffocating, whereas being a minimalist feels like freedom and clarity. But it takes conscious effort to maintain clarity of space and mind, and it’s a quest I feel is worthy of writing about.  I especially notice how simplifying my environment improves my writing, as if the space in my home invites the muse to come in and move my pen across the page with ease.  My mind is open to inspiration, words sweeping through me, uninhibited by too many objects.  Tangible or intangible, it’s all the same to me.  Space clutter and mind clutter.  One leads to the other and they become one fog that  traps precious energy, stalling progress, making forward motion feel like walking through quicksand.

I get strangely excited for anyone who tells me they’re cleaning out their garage or a closet. I know what it will do to their mind, how the clearing out will invite the flow of something good, something nourishing that finds the opening and begins to trickle in. Something they haven’t yet tasted. Call it an obsession or a passion, but I’m harnessing it and letting it manifest into this blog, from me to you. I hope it will inspire you to take  a step or two towards simplifying your own life if you feel inclined to, or encourage you to maintain the simplicity that you already enjoy.