Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Don't Save the Good Stuff

Growing up, we didn't have guest china and everyday china. We had one set. My Father purchased it at Harrods of London on a trip to Europe and hand carried the precious (and crushingly heavy) boxes back on the plane. The dishes were beautiful- white porcelain with delicate gold edges, sumptuously decorated with plums, grapes, peaches and berries. It was special stuff, but my parents didn't save it for special occasions or company. We used our fancy European china for cheerios and fillet mignon alike.

I think this is a healthy attitude to cultivate. If you love something, it is your duty to enjoy it. There is a contradictory idea that says If you love something, it is your duty to keep it safe. You don't want your prized china to break or chip, so you lock it up in a cupboard and only take it out for Christmas dinner.

When you lock something up in the cupboard, or leave it only for guests to use, you are saying to yourself either "I'm not good enough to use that." or "I'm afraid I will ruin it." or "Someday there will be a moment to use that, but it isn't today. " I think all of these ideas are nonsense. Let's tackle them one at a time.

"I'm not good enough to use that."

Um, yeah you are. You are full of memories, thoughts and hopes that are totally unique to you out of all the people on the planet earth. You are special and worthy of all of the pleasures that life has to offer. Don't turn all that down because of unfounded insecurities. The dishes are a metaphor for something much bigger.

As a side note, If it doesn't fit with your life, or intimidates you, pitch it. You own your possessions, not the other way around.

"I'm afraid I will ruin it."

When I was little, I broke my mother's crystal vase. I can't remember the circumstances (why was I playing with a vase?), but I do remember feeling nauseated with fear and worry. I was terrified of her reaction. I felt sure she'd be furious. When she discovered the shattered remnants, she frowned. I could tell she was disappointed. But then she sighed and said "Ah well. It's just stuff." and I was flooded with relief.

Stuff is just stuff. Someday you'll die and you can't take stuff with you, so you'd better enjoy it while you can. Yes, your china might chip when you use it everyday. But you gave it that chip while letting it fulfill it's intended purpose. Something that wears out because you have enjoyed it is much easier to let go of precisely because you got use from it. If you take that dish out of the china cupboard and it slips from your fingers and smashes on the floor on Christmas day, think how heartbroken you'd feel- you'd only used it twice before! But if you've enjoyed it day after day, you can shrug and say "It's just stuff."

"Someday there will be a moment to use that, but it isn't today. "

So here's the thing- you've can create special moments anytime you like. Pleasure isn't something you need to hoard. The more you practice enjoying it, the more it will flood into your life. If, on the other hand you treat pleasure and enjoyment as distant and fleeting, they will continue to be exactly that. Don't wait for some distant moment to enjoy the things you love that are right here now. Fill up that plate and dig in.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Book Report: My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia is Willa Cather's masterpiece about life on the Kansas prairie at the turn of the century. Although I usually read non-fiction, the themes of this novel called to me; individualism, simplicity, spirituality and early feminism. I love to read classics, because they have proven to hold truth across the test time.

When I'm reading fiction, I enjoy thinking about how a person came to be a writer- what steps were taken. It isn't like other professions- there is no set path to pursue. Instead, you must practice, practice, practice and search your own heart to discover your voice. Cather did that ruthlessly throughout her unconventional life and this book is the result. My Antonia tells the story of two families on the American fronteir. One family has lived and worked the land for years, while the other are new immigrants from Bavaria.

Antonia is the Bavarian family's eldest daughter, and her story is told through the eyes of Jim, an orphaned boy sent to live with his grandparents in the unspoiled West. Her ruddy, earthy goodness enchants him and he spends his life trying to understand what makes her so full of life, even in the face of great sorrows and sacrifices.

I often copy down passages that are especially meaningful to me when I am reading- as a way of keeping track of the parts that strike a chord with me. Here are some favorites sections:

"[He] told me that the sunflowers were introduced into that country by the Mormons at the time of persecution, when they left Missouri and struck out into the wilderness to find a place where they could worship God in their own way. The members of the first exploring party, crossing the plains to Utah, scattered sunflower seed as they went. The next summer when the long trains of wagons came through with all the women and children, they had the sunflower trail to follow. I believe that botanists do not confirm this story, but insist that the sunflower was native to those plains. Nevertheless, that legend has stuck in my mind and sunflower bordered roads always seem to me the roads to freedom."

In my opinion, freedom of worship and tolerance are this country's greatest asset. I love the imagery of people strewing flower seed as a symbol of hope and encouragement to those who follow later.

"There was a basic harmony between Antonia and her mistress. They had strong, independent natures, both of them. They knew what they liked and were not always trying to imitate other people. They loved children and animals and music and rough play and digging in the earth. They liked to prepare rich hearty food and to see people eat it, to make up soft white beds and to see youngsters asleep in them. They ridiculed conceited people and were quick to help unfortunate ones. Deep down in each of them there was a kind of hearty joviality, a relish of life, not over delicate, but very invigorating."

This passage so eloquently describes the sort of person I strive to be; one who has worked hard to build a life that is pleasing to her and basks in the bombardment of sensory experience that is the great treasure of human life. My goal is to be like Antonia, awake and alive to the finite series of small moments that make life worth living.

"Do you know Antonia, since I've been away, I've thought of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister- anything a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it. You really are a part of me."

She turned her bright believing eyes to me and the tears came up in them slowly, "How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I've dissapointed you so? Ain't it wonderful Jim, how much people can mean to each other?"

Of course, it all comes back to love in the end. It would have been so easy for Cather to make this story a simple romance, but instead, she wrote about something more tangled and complicated. She described and celebrated another kind of love- a love based on friendship, and admiration. She wrote with an honesty and freshness that is still powerful today.

Have you read anything great lately? Do tell!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Make Your Own May Day Basket with Recycled Cans

I did get around to making these little May Day Baskets...On Hawaii Time! I figured, First of May, Fifth of May, same difference!

Here are the wildflowers I gathered during my morning walk...

All snipped and arranged in water. (Luckily, I had just made Chili the night before so had lots of cans handy. I used my dremel tool to make the holes for the wire handles- quicker than the hammer & nail idea.)

And added a little love note with some hang tags from my vintage paper stash, all tied on with a bit of string.
It was so fun to see my neighbors' faces when I showed up on their doorsteps with flowers to celebrate Spring! One, who is an avid gardener, told me that the greenery is called "Be Still." It must be an ironic name, because you should see how it sways and dances in the breeze! But the best part? This little Random Act of Kindness didn't cost me a penny. Have you surprised anyone lately?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Clean out Your Closet, Then Shop in it!

It's supremely self indulgent to do a post on cleaning out my closet, but I have some rationalizations handy. It's seasonally pertinent (Haven't you heard of "Spring Cleaning"?) and it relates back to my urge to simplify and appreciate what I've already got.

One has to make space for good things in order to appreciate them. Surrounded by quantity, quality evaporates. Think about museums or fancy boutiques or five star hotels. They aren't crowded or cluttered with objects competing for your attention. They are usually spacious and airy. That is true luxury; the space to appreciate.


Not bad really. Just in a bit of disarray. (And, oh dear, yes those are undies on the floor. You got me.) But here's what happened. I rearranged the furniture in my office to accommodate a giant map of the world and ended up pulling out a shelving unit. Since my house & furniture are rented, I can't just cart things off to the Goodwill. I thought, "This piece is a lot prettier than the ugly plastic shelving I've got in the closet. And there's a second one hogging a corner of the guest room too!" So I hauled the plastic pieces out and put the bamboo ones in.


My favorite part is having all my shoes on display like little pieces of art. It makes me happy to admire them every day- even those I don't wear much. And I don't want to add anything second rate to the collection. Anything new that comes in has to live up to the other pieces, you know? That's a great feeling.

Eric never really wears his ties, but now I can enjoy his collection anyway. There is something so wonderfully unnecessary about a tie. It's just for show and a splash of color.

Here's what I love. Stepping into my closet now feels like hitting a boutique for a spending spree. Shopping your closet is easier when everything is beautifully displayed. The big secret here was not buying more stuff, just weeding out the unwanted stuff (lots more than I thought!) and rearranging what I had to make my life a little nicer.

Here are my five favorite closet organizing tips:

1) Use only one color hanger. It sounds really anal, but it makes a huge difference visually. Your eye goes straight to the clothes instead of being distracted by a hodgepodge of hangers. One less thing for your brain to process as you choose what to wear. Definitely a good thing.

2) Sort garments by style and color. I have all my dresses in one section, then tops, then skirts and pants. Putting them in color order really makes me feel like I am playing in a giant paint box every morning.I also sort them further by how fancy they are. The things you use every day should be easy to reach, while special occasion things can go in corners.

3) Don't fall for the myth of more storage! Bins and baskets keep things looking tidy, but you will also forget what you have in them and end up buying more of what you already have. Out of sight out of mind goes double for closets. If you can't see it, you probably won't use it. (If you must, use clear containers. In my office, I'm a bin junkie! The shoe box sized bins are great for art supplies.) The real secret to organization is not the Container Store. It's taking a few trash bags to the Goodwill.

4) Go through your closet every six months. At least. Things wear out, or get pilled or just don't feel great any more. Pass them along to someone who can use and enjoy them.

5) Make room for what is really important to you. Edit out the things that make you feel frumpy or plump or dated. It will make room for things that make you feel good. A wardrobe of choices that you look great in will empower you to be your best.

My closet isn't Mariah's or Oprah's, but a girl has to have something to shoot for, after all. Have you done any de-cluttering this spring? What are you favorite de-junking tips?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

How to Not Curdle the Tapioca

I've had a string of cooking disasters on my hands recently-

-A batch of homemade marshmallows that were the color and texture of silly putty with a burnt chemical flavor.
-An attempt to expedite bacon cooking with an untested method ala Barefoot Contessa (she promised me it would be perfectly crisp while I remained splatter free! How could I resist?) started a grease fire (I was shockingly composed in the crisis) that ruined my BLT plans.
-A batch of tapioca pudding that turned grainy and curdled.

Each of these disasters can be traced back to rushing. Rushing forward without the right equipment (a candy thermometer in the case of the Ruined Marshmallows), rushing forward without consulting the recipe (I'd seen Ina do Oven Bacon on television, but didn't want to look it up so just attempted it under the broiler. Not. Wise.) Rushing to deal with the resultant massive grease fire raging in my oven led me to neglect The Curdled Tapioca That I Will In All Likelihood Eat Anyway.

As I thought about this string of disasters, I realized that is what I love and sometimes hate about cooking- it just can't be rushed. It takes the time that it takes. And the best results take lots of preparation and time. But not just time.

Good results in the kitchen also demand care. In fact, care is the underpinning for all good cooking. The tapioca could still have still curdled if I'd been standing there staring into space thinking about the orders I had to ship. The tapioca required not just my time, but that I care about what I was doing. That I be attentive to it.

I needed to be there in the moment, focusing only on making the tapioca. Not thinking about bills, or how I ought to sweep the floor or create a lesson plan.

Just Stirring. Admiring the little globules of tapioca turn pale and translucent. Considering how space age tapioca pearls look for an ancient root extract. Marveling at the eggs and the beautiful color and depth they add to the pudding. How they help to thicken it. Smelling the lovely custardy steam rising up as the mixture reduces. Feeling the hairs around my face curl in that steam. Noticing the sound of my whisk scraping the bottom of the saucepan, how my stirring keeps the mixture from scalding.

Practice this enough and suddenly, the task isn't unpleasant any more. It is a thing you are doing and taking pleasure in doing well. But of course, this is a challenge. To approach minutia with a fresh enthusiasm, attention and openness sometimes feels impossible. So I tried to rush. To do two things at once so I could get on to something more important. And that's when the tapioca curdled.

This is a lesson I am just now learning and that I will have to learn and re-learn. But, "making every act a meditation" seems worth it to me.

P.S) Here are the lovely Tapioca Recipes pictured if you've got the urge to make some now:

Thursday, April 15, 2010

DIY Wine Bottle Arrangements from your own Backyard

I'm not sure if it's Spring Cleaning, but lately I've just been interested in changing things up around here- to get a little fresh air moving through the house. I've been craving fresh flowers in a bad way- but having trouble plunking down $15 for the humiliated looking roses for sale around here. Then I remembered- I live in a tropical paradise!

I'd been saving some wine bottles for this DIY lamp project and just look at the extraordinary foliage growing right in my own backyard? Bonus- they last an eternity in cut flower years! The result here is very West Elm, no? I could have stopped, but you know Miss B. More is more in my book. I also have a few pyrex science beakers in the shop at the moment, so I thought I'd put 'em to use till someone snaps them up.

I added the turtle watercolor (the only piece of artwork that was originally in this house that I absolutely loved) and a few spun glass candle holders I had in another part of the house. So pleased with my little composition. It's feeling very lush, tropical and clean in here all of the sudden and I didn't spend one single penny. What's better than that?

This could work just as well with anything that's blooming in your neck of the woods- ferns, blooming branches, anything goes! Just make sure to very the height of the stems, the sizes of the containers and stick to odd numbers for maximum visual interest.

Have you made something new with something you had already? I'd love to hear all about it.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Karl Lagerfeld Advises Frugalistas

"Never use the word cheap. Today everybody can look chic in inexpensive clothes. There's good clothing design on every level today. You can be the chicest thing in the world in a t-shirt and jeans. It's up to you. Don't use inexpensive clothes as a screen for your personal doubts. Be proud of yourself and not only because you wear expensive designer clothes. They are great, but lots of people are happy without them. You come first, the clothes later. Reinvent new combinations of what you already own. Play with it. Improvise. Become more creative." - Karl Lagerfeld
Thanks to my Mum for sending this my way. It's the perfect way to think about your closet (and life), no matter what your budget.