Amazing Grace

Back in college, I took a class on positive psychology.

It was a real course, with real lectures and readings, but assignments tended toward things like “journaling”—and organic chemistry it was not. (Favorite exercise: a sensory meditation on a lima bean, rolled against my ear.)

There are whole academic departments devoted to the field—whole rooms of publishing houses, too. And without meaning to discount them all, and the very smart people with which they are filled, it was an otherwise intense sophomore spring, and I wasn’t entirely in this for the scholarship. But: Mallomar rigor and occasional eye-roll aside, there *were* things learned and, I think, of value.

One of the first assignments I remember, is keeping a journal of gratitude. Twice a week, recording the things for which I was lately and especially thankful. There’ve been articles aplenty on the benefits reaped from the practice; and while they may not all pass muster under peer review, I really like how one psychologist describes it here—as “the habit of paying attention to gratitude-inspiring events.” Marty Seligman, by way of Mary Oliver.

It’s a habit I abandoned just as soon as the semester ended; but after a weekend spent unexpectedly in surgery, and with Thanksgiving season creeping closer, it’s one to which I’d like to return.

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And so, here’s a very first entry. Thankfulness kindling, from recent days:

This book. (And the book buddy who lent it.)

These slippers. (Cool temps; cozy toes.)

This scented candle. (Christmas in October.)

Pickleball. (That it is a real thing, and that I had a real conversation about it.)

These get-well sprigs. (And the fella who brought them home.)

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Of course, all the matter that really matters: the family and friends and happiness and (mostly) health, that have graced my life this week.

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Self-care for the non-believer

“Self-care” as this zeitgeist-y thing makes me, um, gag.

It is largely, I think, an affected iteration of “Treat yo’self,” and I’d much rather take my life advice from Donna and Tom than from a self-obsessed Brooklyn blogette.

That said, I’ve slowly come around to the idea that there is value in the concept, if not the expression—that it matters to care for yourself, with intention and routine.

In How to Be Married (which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone getting, considering getting, newly, or not-so newly married), Jo Piazza writes about self-care as putting on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else with theirs. It’s a simple metaphor, but one that I hadn’t before considered and that I think is just so right. It frames self-care not as a choice or a twee-dom of privilege, but as an imperative. Self-care as saving—of your own self but of others’, too. Before you can care for a co-passenger (a partner; a friend; a colleague; a child), you must first care for yourself.

It’s back-to-school season now, and perhaps because I’ve spent my entire life in schools, I’ve always thought of this—more than the New Year—as a time for setting intentions. (Another gag-worthy phrase; please forgive.)

And so this week, I’ve set a few self-care goals. I’ll leave them here, on the chance you’re looking to set a few for yourself, too, and that they may serve as some small inspiration.

Rebalance the scales.

Unless you are a surgeon or a firefighter, it is unlikely that someone will die if you disengage from your work. I say this as someone who’s been known to check Outlook while awaiting vacation flights; who currently has a second window open to a PowerPoint presentation; who has a decidedly very hard time leaving work at work—on weekends and evenings and times otherwise intended for sabbatical. Intention #1, then. This year, I will try to do just that. To add a few more grams to the “life” of the work-life scales, so that when I go to work each morning, I do so refreshed and reenergized and ready to give myself wholly to it.

Disconnect.

I know that I’m not alone here, but I have a hard time disconnecting generally, too. In fact, I’ve just paused this writing to scroll through Instagram, because, you know, a post of earth-shattering consequence may have gone up after dinner. Actually, though, it probably hasn’t; and all I’ve done is activate a weary mind, and unsettle what needs quieting. Another intention, then, is to put aside all gadgety things after 8 p.m. (Barring the one that’s currently allowing me to watch The Killing, that is.) After 8, my laptop and phone will live downstairs in a drawer, and I’ll see them again in the morning.

Always (or sometimes) be moving.

I’ve heard that running does wonders, but ever since Mr. Chadwick’s fifth grade gym class, I’ve had very little inclination. Walking makes me feel really good. Calm and energized, both, and strong. It’s when I think about things—a day’s occurrences and observations; conversations had or to have. It’s usually when the “writerly muse” visits, too. I’m lucky to live in a place that lends itself to long walks; and until deep winter, at least, I’ll take one each day after work.

Water your garden.

I don’t know that there’s any such thing as one true passion, but I know that there are things that we love, that give us joy and meaning beyond our daily avocations. For me, one is writing. After months pining for my high school Harkness tables, I started this blog in the summer, when I had some time on my hands. It’s a blip in a hugely oversaturated blog market, and I doubt that anyone has been reading beyond family and close friends, if that. For me, though, it’s been really special; and while summer hours are done, it’s a space I’ll continue to nurture. I’ll post less often, but I intend to write a little bit each day. To keep watering this very tiny garden that for me has been a kind of salvation.

Kill Your Darlings

Back in April, I bought a set of hanging impatiens. It had been a long week and a longer winter, and it finally felt like spring outside the house that was so newly and impossibly ours. Flowers, then.

We went to one store and then another, where I paced the aisles heroically—weaving among the petunias and begonias and so many (I mean so many; this was a Sunday mornings at Stew’s) people. I peered from afar and then from very near, considering each plant for its size and fullness; for its hues and balance thereof. My husband held up one after another (thank you; I love you), and at last I settled on two baskets of impatiens. Before, of course, turning back at the pavilion to replace one with another that was catching the light so well, and was surely, just slightly, more perfect. I was thrilled.

At home, I took a photograph, which I later posted on Instagram along with a few lines of Mary Oliver. Because if anyone gets at the essence of spring quite like Mary Oliver, I’d like to know it. (See.)

And now it’s July, and my plants are utterly, undeniably dead.

There’s very little that’s poetic about a dead plant—barring the alliterative, I guess, in that it is both withered and wilted. I watered mine faithfully (but perhaps, unevenly), lifted them from the sun’s glare on occasion (but perhaps, on too few occasions); and life happened, and time passed.

So here I am with these carefully chosen, poetically paired, dearly departed flowers. And that’s okay; that’s probably more than okay, for me. I’m so new to this whole gardening thing; to this whole, having a garden, and a house, and a husband, thing. And when things are new, I have a tendency to lose my way a little bit; to turn inwards a little too far, and look for moorings in perfection—in whatever, in a basket of flowers. But a flower is an object lesson on being—and on the beauty of its transience. None is everlasting (though I suppose some are, technically, called perennial), and none is unblemished while it lasts. Kind of freeing.

I think a garden is going to be a very good thing. I’ll labor and I’ll love, but the next time I shop for plantings, I won’t be wringing my hands over these ones or those. I’ll pick some that look just fine, and then I’ll hurry with my husband to the check-out, because we’ve also got bagels to buy and a life to live.

Deciduous

There’s this tree in the front yard that I just can’t get over. If you are on the porch, looking out toward the street, you’ll see the trunk rise to your right, shadowing the sidewalk below. It stretches so much higher than you can see, past the bedroom windows, higher. But from here, you count one, two…eleven branches outstretched. Before you there is so much green—leaves crossing the sky, weighing down the branches, dipping low. Among the leaves are flowers—hundreds—pale yellow and green, flecked with orange. On a late-spring-but-let’s-call-it-summer morning, when the air is thick but not still, and the sky is blue and white and gray, all at once, the light will catch between the leaves, and it will hurt your eyes to look.

I’ve called this the “tulip tree” since it first began to bloom, and I turned to my husband and said, “Oh! Those look like tulips up there.” My heart trilled more than a little bit when, on a recent trip to the Botanical Garden, I spotted one of the same; and on the placard were the words, “Tulip Tree.” Liriodendron tulipifera, to be accurate. But.

I’m sitting on the railing, ankles crossed, legs dangling over the hostas, and with every breath of wind another flower falls. The birds are going crazy, and I can’t help but feel that Snow White’s about to drop by, and we’ll all break into song.

I don’t know much at all about this tree—when it was planted; if it needs care; how much longer until that one branch falls onto the neighbor’s truck. But every day, it thrills me. There’s the sense of wonder that comes from the obvious metaphor—of what’s ephemeral and what endures, of how much longer it has lived, and will, than I. Everything it’s seen pass in and out of this house. So many people and stories. I think, too, of Baucis and Philemon, and of how that’s how I’d like to go. All I know, I guess, is that it’s here, and our family is here, too, and that it’s ours as much as a tree can ever be anyone’s—on a mortgage. And tonight, if the rain holds, we’ll sit out on the porch, and have a beer, and watch the sun and the flowers fall.

Notes on a garden, which is to say on a life

You wake up so early. 4:50. The cats. Soft steps and then, closer, a tearing. The curtain above your nightstand. It’s fine, you think. You turn to the right and see that your husband is stirring, will make them breakfast. Small blessings. Ten feet, then—eight, smaller and light. You think of how you like to joke, Practice; night feedings. You feel your husband ease back into bed, the covers tightening across your shoulders, and you turn over again, to the left. Fold into something small. Close your eyes.

You open them and glance at your phone, and it’s already (only) 5:23. You read an e-mail, set the phone down. You’re half-asleep, and your mind is ticking through the real process of awakening—the bathroom, the walk downstairs, the lifting of blinds. And so you do those things. You look out the window as the coffee starts, and there is so much fog. You can barely see past the yard. You rest your eyes there, then. Everything is green. You’ve let the grass go too long, and the flowerbeds need care—pruning, weeding, re-planting. Whatever it is that needs to be done for a garden. (Which is? You wonder.) Your husband said last week, as you crouched over so many tendrils, puzzled, “Isn’t anything you don’t like a weed?” You’re not sure that’s right, but then, maybe.

You make a list for the day. Water the hanging plants (impatiens, not impatients, you’ve learned)—one so withered from the sun, you’re not sure it’ll live; but you’ll hope. Mow the lawn. You don’t linger too long on that. Maybe you’ll pick up the sticks. So many; the rain. Find food for the roses out front. (Something they need, you’ve learned. Something organic.) You look inside the cabinets, see baking powder, apple cider vinegar; you’ll need to go to the store. You will. You wonder why the hydrangeas haven’t bloomed. (They should have, by now, right?) You’ll want to bring something from the garden indoors. A few roses, clipped, in a mason jar. You’ll place them somewhere high. The cats.

6:43. You’re here with your husband, in the kitchen. “More coffee?” he asks, and you shake your head, No. It’s raining again. Maybe the yard work will have to wait, till the afternoon, till tomorrow. You peer into the refrigerator, see carrots, think, I’ll make those muffins again. You’re hungry, after all. Your cats traipse in, sit beside you, look through the sliding glass door. You do, too. The fog is thick but the sky is lighter now—like an elephant? Something like that. It’s so quiet, only the birds. You set down your list, close your eyes, don’t think too far ahead. Just. Here I am, in this house, with the person I love on this still Sunday morning. And that’s enough.

You set out the mixing bowl. Crack an egg. Stir.

For the curious and the hungry:

Carrot Oatmeal Greek Yogurt Muffins
Yields twelve.
Best served with coffee and blooms, preferably au lit.

Ingredients
• 1 1/4 cups all-purpose {or whole wheat} flour
• 1 cup old fashioned rolled oats
• 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
• 1/2 tsp baking soda
• 1 tsp ground cinnamon
• 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
• 1/4 tsp salt
• 2 large eggs
• 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
• 2 tbsp maple syrup {or honey}
• 1/4 cup unsweetened almond milk
• 2 tsp vanilla extract
• 1 cup grated carrot
• 1/2 cup raisins {optional}

Directions
1. Preheat your oven to 350F and prepare a muffin pan by lining the cavities with paper liners or greasing them with cooking spray or oil. Set aside.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, oats, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt. Set aside.
3. In a separate bowl, beat the eggs until they become slightly frothy before whisking in the yogurt, maple syrup, almond milk, and vanilla. Mix until well combined before folding in the grated carrots.
4. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, mixing gently until just combined. Add raisins, if desired.
5. Divide the batter evenly among the 12 muffin cups, filling almost to the top.
6. Bake for 20-22 minutes, or until the tops of the muffins are firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Allow the muffins to cool in the pan for ~5 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 5 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.

*Recipe adapted from Amanda’s at Running with Spoons.