Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Oh, The Places You'll Go.

Last week I asked my kids what brings them joy (because it's the end of the month and I was scraping the bottom of my inspiration bucket).

"Going new places," said Child #1. "You could even write a blog post called Oh, The Places You'll Go!"

Absolute genius! We are a very joyful family when we venture out to new places. All the picky eating, bedtime silliness, sibling warfare and general crankiness gets set aside in favor of our love of adventure.

I've put my kids on a nineteen hour flight to Thailand ("Mom can we watch? [insert inappropriate movie of your choice here]) Me in midsty of blurry jetlag, "Uh-huh, sure, whatever." But once we touched down, our jetlag faded and we reveled in things like tuktuks and ruins.

I weaned my daughter onto formula in the Cotswalds. There's something in that British formula that made her a very happy baby who gained three pounds in two weeks.

And I've driven with my family cross-country to see some of our nation's great treasures. Yellowstone last summer and Yosemite in a few weeks.

What I discovered this winter is, although it's fun, I don't always need to drag my kids across international date lines in order to discover the joy of new places. Sometimes that joy can be discovered right in my own backyard. Take Oregon for example, it's ski country. Something I've managed to ignore for the last six years.

Skiing had a bad rap with me. Until recently it conjured up images of cold hands, frozen toes and boyfriends convincing me I'd be just fine on the black diamond mogul runs. Then this winter, after weeks of rain in the valley and snow on the mountains, I decided we should give it a shot. If for no other reason then to get out of the rain.

We drove up to the mountain, emerging through the clouds and there was sun and a chorus of angels singing. Okay, maybe I imagined the angels but after weeks of rain you start imagining all kinds of things. The ski equipment was warmer than I remembered it being, the air was fresh and the best part of the whole day was when my kids finished their lesson.

"Mom, I want to go on the ski lift with you," my daughter told me. And so we did. Every time the lift swept us up into the air she squealed with excitement.

The first two times she fell down when we left the chair lift. The third time she got it and that, combined with hot cocoa afterwards, was pure joy found in an unexpected place.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Simple Conversation

My theme this month has been joy. But this week the subset theme (although I didn't plan it that way) has been about taking time for yourself. The joy that can happen when you're not rushing from one place to the next.

Which is why today's post took me by surprise.

Because yesterday I was rushing. It was after dinner and I had just coaxed Child #2 out the door and into cleats for a baseball game. Child #1 wanted to stay home and hang out with me.

"Okay," I told her. "But I have a lot to get done. You can just follow me around and talk to me while I finish things."

And she did.

We went to Trader Joe's where she weighed the benefits of chocolate soy milk in a box. "I hear it tastes like soda, mom! I think we should try it."

While we were waiting in the check out line she conveyed some important information she'd learned at school. "You'll never guess what Veronica told Rebecca and Rebecca told Lauren and Lauren told Quinn and Quinn told Iris and Iris told me." She was right. I would never have guessed the content of the gossip or that ten year old girls really talk like that.

We went to the library where I had to return overdue books. "Umm, Mom, why is water dripping from the front seat?"

I discovered the offending water bottle and we made a pact not to tell daddy. "I probably didn't put the lid on tight enough," I told her.

"No," she said. "I'm sure it was me."

I handed her a cookie and told her the leaky water bottle wasn't her fault. "Mom, does anyone not like your blog?" she asked from the backseat.

"If they do I don't hear about it."

"But maybe they do and you don't know. I hope you don't mind all the questions but I call this an interview. Just try to give me your honest thoughts."

I gave her my honest thoughts as we drove home.

While I folded laundry and swept grass off the front steps she told me about the change in field day protocol and asked if I found it strange that "Peeta is the baker's son and pita is ALSO a kind of bread. Do you think she planned it that way on purpose mom?"

Eventually, as all good things do, our interlude ended. Child #2 and my husband came home from the baseball game and we all went about the business of a school night.

But later, as I was going to bed, it occurred to me how a simple conversation in the midst of routine day has the capacity to deliver an immense amount of joy.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Joy of Pain

The other day I was talking with a friend about yoga. More specifically, we were talking about how, over time, positions you dread can turn into something you crave.

I started practicing yoga when we lived in New York and it was an immediate love affair. The kind that made me sneak out of my office at lunchtime and return with a yoga zen smile and a general air of calm that befuddled my coworkers.

All through my pregnancies with Child #1 and #2, yoga was the only thing that kept me sane.

I know this because it was my husband's favorite thing to suggest in the middle of crying jags, irrational demands and feeding frenzies. "Honey, maybe a little yoga will make you feel better. You take all the time you need." 

Yoga is one of those things you can do halfway or you can push yourself hard. As soon as I figured out how to push myself, which isn't as easy as it sounds, that's what I started doing. Which brings me back to the conversation I had with my friend.

Is the desire to twist your body into positions that make you breathe like you're giving birth to a ten pound baby masochistic?

But wait!

Because I'm a writer first and a yoga lover second, the question seemed just as apt, if not more, for the practice of writing.

Writing is full of painful positions. Sometimes the pain comes from getting words out onto paper. Lately, for me the pain has been in the editing. First edit, second edit, third edit, fourth. And on some days the pain comes from reading what I've written. Seriously, who wrote this crap? Oh, right, I did.

Writers shun human contact. We lock ourselves in rooms or coffee shops or attics or basements and communicate with our fingers. It's not a natural state. Or maybe it is. But it's certaintly not a painfree state. What kind of person prefers the written word to the spoken one? What kind of person delves into their most painful memories on a regular basis in order to make sure words on a page feel authentic?

And when we're all done, when we've twisted, slaved, sweated blood and tears, we know that, most likely, our work will not be met with a roaring stadium of fans anxious to congratulate us on our amazing feat.

If we're lucky, it will be met with the same polite smattering of applause that my yoga teacher had after the phenomonal class he taught on Monday night.

"I feel like Lady GaGa," he said.

I giggled because his statement underscored a central truth about both yoga and writing.

They're a practice. Often a difficult one but you don't do it for the applause. You do it for the feeling you are pushing your words or your body into unchartered territory. Maybe writers and yoginis are also practioners of masochism. I'm not sure. All I know is, when done well, both things can be deeply uncomfortable and also have the capacity to produce endless amounts of joy.


Monday, May 21, 2012

Savoring Joy

Last week the sun was shining. This was momentous because, since moving back to Oregon, I can't EVER remember two solid weeks of May sunshine.

Our spring weather usually comes in the liquid variety, which is great for gardens and skin cancer prevention but leaves us all with a Vitamin D deficiency.

All week long I had been doing the same thing; namely ignoring the gorgeous weather in favor of getting things done.

I'd been working furiously on my edit of Losing Hope, swooping into school at the last minute to fetch my children, running them to after school activities, doling out snacks, making dinners, doing laundry. Most of you know the drill, and if you don't there's a brief outline for you to follow in the previous sentence.

On the day in question I had done all the aforementioned things when I suddenly realized I had twenty minutes of free time. Instead of focusing on the long list of things that I could have/should have/usually would have been doing, I wandered outside and sat down in the lounge chair in my backyard. 

Emails and Twitter alerts were piling up. Losing Hope was calling to me. Child #1 had to get to her concert by 6:00. Meals needed to be planned. A library book was almost overdue and there were dishes in my kitchen sink but instead of attending to any of those things I just sat in the sun.

Both children came out to observe me, like I was some kind of strange backyard art installation.

"What's she doing?" Child #2 asked his sister.

"She's lounging." Child #1 told him.

I pretended I couldn't hear them talking about me, despite their being six feet away and stared up through the leaves of my fig tree.

 A moment later the kids spread a blanket in the grass and were on their backs staring up at the sky. "Shouldn't we be getting ready for my concert?" asked Child #2 after two or three minutes of contemplating clouds.

"I set an alarm on my phone," I told her. "We aren't going to think about any to-dos until it goes off."

And we didn't.

We lounged, infused ourselves with Vitamin D and daydreamed from 4:25 until 4:45. After that we went back to the rush and press of our lives.

But I think our twenty minute break made us savor the rest of the day that much more. And, that we were a little more joyful because of it.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Joy, Food and the Picky Eater Club

Food should be one of life's great joys. And, as I talked about on Wednesday, for a long time it was one of mine. I cooked, ate and reveled in the discovery of things like farm fresh figs and artisanal cheese. Then along came Child #1, followed shortly by Child #2

Eating with my kids is like eating with Jack Sprat and his wife. My daughter, loves things like steak, eggs, and yogurt. Potatos, pasta and cherry tomatoes are major offenders on her yuk list.

My son loves all the things she hates and hates all the things she loves. When they were little I would order one meal and two plates. Carbs for him, protein for her.

A not so ideal situation when they were little, grew into something downright annoying as they got older. It's hard to find joy in preparing meals when you know at least one person at the table will be miserable and will feel free to to tell you just how miserable they are.
I tried all the suggested tactics. We insisted on polite bites. The kids visited the grocery store with me and I let them have input into the weekly meal plan. But by the time I had tried to meet everyone's requirements the meals I was making were far from joyful. In fact, they were joyless.

And then something happened.

I stopped caring.

Before you accuse me of hard-heartedness or report me to the authorities for failure to feed my children let me explain.

First of all, I realized no one was in danger of imminent starvation.

Secondly, I realized that cooking by committee was leading to bland dinners of blech. So I stopped. It was as simple as that.

This week, dinner was Baked Polenta with Sausage and Artichoke Hearts, Pasta with Roasted Tomatoes and Capers and Broiled Chicken with Cucumber and Pineapple Salad.

None of those meals are revolutionary or fancy. But they were fun to cook and my husband and I enjoyed eating them, even if the kids voiced complaints. One night Child #1 decided to forego dinner and one night Child #2 ate three bites. "That's okay," I told each of them. "You can always make yourself a peanut butter sandwich."

Child #2 grumped about a friend's mom who "always makes good things like corndogs for dinner."

"Wow," I said. "She sounds nice. Too bad you don't have a nice mom like that." And then I joyfully took another bite of my Cucumber and Pineapple Salad.

I said it on Wednesday and I'll say it again. Sometimes you have to find your own joy. If life gives you picky eaters, maybe the best thing to do is cook the things you love and trust that the only damage you're doing is the kind that can be remedied over breakfast.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Joy of Cooking

This post could be about Julia Childs, but Julie got there first and did it better, so it's just going to be about cooking.

Cooking and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship.

There was the first brief flirtation around the age of eleven when I took over my mother's kitchen causing her to mutter things like "flour all over the floor" and "cleaning up is part of cooking". The fliratation faded, as so many do, and wasn't rekindled until two things happened.

The first momentous event was my daughter was born. The second momentous event was I was on maternity leave and home all freakin' day long. The advice is to sleep when the baby sleeps but my baby didn't like to sleep unless she was strapped into her Baby Bjorn. So I bundled her into it and while she slept I walked.

Eventually all the walking led me to grocery stores, which in turn made me think that maybe, after all, I could do this cooking thing. The first thing I made was tomato soup, from scratch. And couscous with parsely. These were major undertakings, made with Child #1 watching me from her bouncy seat on the kitchen counter (and yes I know that's against bouncy seat rules but somehow she survived and we moved on).

I would cook, do dishes, feed Child #1, change diapers and go for long walks. That pretty much summarizes the first six months of Child #1's existence. On one of those long walks I discovered a used copy of Julia Child's Mastering The Art of French Cooking at a street book fair around the corner from our apartment building.

It was $2.00. Kind of a no-brainer purchase. I took it home and realized that Ms. Childs was going to take me far beyond tomato soup and couscous.

Her recipes had steps. Many, many steps. And butter. Lots and lots of butter.

Slowly I began to understand the lexicon of cooking. The difference between a small dice and a chop. I began to scope out fresh produce and artisan cheese shops with a zeal formerly reserved for sample sales.

My cooking got better. A lot better. Before I knew it I was able to whip up a formal dinner for twelve without breaking a sweat and was the proud owner of every kitchen tool known to man.

Then something happened. My kids started eating food.

Overnight I went from experimenting with things like Caneton Braise Aux Marrons to burritos in the microwave. And slowly the joy of hunting for perfect ingredients and experimenting with new foods dried up.

It's hard to get excited about spaghetti and meatballs. Matzoh ball soup and PB&J became staples in our house. They were good solid foods but not fun or sexy or joyful.

My resolve to feed my children exactly what I ate was broken by Child #1's hair trigger gag reflex. There's only so many times you can be vomited on before you decide that grilled cheese is a preferable choice to crab souffle.

And so it went. I cooked things that the little people would eat. Boring, well-balanced meals (not too spicy) and not too joyful until one day I realized two things: (1) we were no longer in the phase of life where going without dinner meant a sleepless night and (2) like all joy, sometimes you are responsible for reclaiming it yourself.

I'll talk about how Johanna got her cooking Joy back on Friday. Hope to see you all then.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Faces of Joy

Today, as I write this post, it's Mother's Day. The sun is shining, the kids are happy, the husband is making me dinner, friends are abundant and I'm feeling...well...joyful.

I'm also feeling a little guilty about the way I'm dragging my feet on writing this post. Did I mention it's Mother's Day (which according to my kids is a day that's better than your birthday, Christmas and in-school party all wrapped into one)? Instead of filling you up with words about joy I'm going to give you some pictures of things that make me joyful.

Joy, that my mother/daughter cloning experiment was successful. 

Joy, to be found in a beautiful table, hastily abandoned and scattered with half-eaten pieces of pizza.

Joy, that the bunny ear photo move is still a classic.

Joy, in a job well done.

And finally, the joy, that can be discovered in reaching for forbidden chocolate left in high places.

Thanks for stopping by to share bits of my joy. And, if you haven't already figured it out from the foregoing photos, one of the things that makes me most joyful is being a parent.

Happy Mother's Day (a day late). Here's hoping you all had plenty of time to enjoy your joy!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Whiskers on Kittens

I confess.

Once upon a time, when we lived in New York City we had a cat. His name was Elliott and we referred to him as our penthouse kitty because he never left the apartment. He was white with long hair and big green eyes. My husband used to say the resemblance between mother and kitty was astonishing.

But then I had human children and poor Elliott took a back seat.

I neither needed nor wanted furry paws around my neck or something to curl up in my lap and meow at me until I petted it. I had diapers to change, a lap full of children and poor Elliott's meowing was often drowned out by a different kind of yowling.

When we moved to Oregon Elliott was adopted by my grandmother who was able to dote on him in the way he'd been doted on before the kids displaced his (what he would have termed) rightful position.

Now we have fish. They seem to die a lot but the only person who ever notices is my husband. Last year I did a post about Child #2s frogs. They have since passed on to the great frog wonderland in the sky.

This guy is temptingly adorable!
In essence, we are petless.

Which made sense for a while but now the children are potty-trained and semi-self sufficient and I'm left wondering whether I'm depriving my family of one of life's great joys.

Would our lives be fuller and richer if we adopted a sweet little puppy?

Even as I type the words 'sweet little puppy' I cringe a little. I picture chewed up shoes, wet, muddy paws and dog hair. The companion image is the one of me, cold and shivering in the rain, holding that little plastic baggy filled with blech.  

So then I think maybe a cat. Until I remember how many people are allergic to cats and how much I love to entertain.

Which leads me to hamsters. I was actively considering hamster logistics when I visited a friend and commented on the large size of her hamster. "That's because he ate the other one," she told me. I wish I could say she was kidding but she wasn't. The story, in brief, one died and the survivor cannibalized his friend.

Rats and mice are out due to my particular phobia so sometimes I play around with the idea of rabbits. I had a rabbit as a child but my rabbit had only slightly more personality than the interchangeable fish in our basement fish tank.

So what do you think blogosphere?

Are pets an important part of joy? Or should I just schedule more play dates for my kids and call it a (poop-free, no cannabilization, unmaimed shoe, zero allergy attack) day?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

She is too fond of books

It makes sense that a writer would love books. If you follow that logic to its conclusion, it's natural that a writer would want to share their love of books with everyone in their life.

Because what is a joy that can't be shared with others?

The reading question has been one that has been analyzed and re-analyzed over many an over-priced cup of coffee with my group of close friends. My friend Georgie and I find this question particularly troubling.

Georgie and I both share an uncanny ability to show up at events dressed as though we'd called each other first to check in. We are the kind of friends who will cook the same things for dinner, buy the same cute napkins from Ikea and decide to eat out at the same restaurant on the same night, all without prior consultation.

Our similarities run even deeper. To name a few of the obvious ones, we're both lawyers, with an older daughter and younger son. But most importantly, for purposes of this blog post, we both spent hours upon hours of our respective childhoods curled up with books.

Which leads to another similarity. We both agonize over the fact that our daughers don't love books the way we did. Don't get me wrong. They're both smart girls. They know how to read and they like the idea of reading but, given the choice, the thing that will keep both girls up past midnight isn't Little Women and a flashlight under the covers.

My daughter and Georgie's daughter haven't followed in their mothers' footsteps when it comes to under-the-covers reading but, like their mothers, they have their own set of similarities.

They are the talkers, the tellers of stories and fonts of imaginative play. They're the kind of girls who are in high demand for play dates because they're NEVER at a loss for ways to occupy themselves.

At four, they created puddles in Georgie's basement in order to make 'Polly Pocket Lake'. We discovered them in their underwear joyfully stomping and squealing in said puddles.

At seven they face painted each other with lipstick, which would have been okay if the lipstick hadn't been smudge- proof and they didn't wipe it on the walls, the mirror, the carpet and all over my daughter's bed. Now at ten, they are busily planning the details for next year's attendance to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

When there is so much joy to be gleaned from every day life, maybe it's okay if books take a backseat. Maybe if Georgie and I had grown up together we would have spent more time creating outdoor soup and putting on plays. After all, books will always be there, but being ten is a place you only get to go once.

She's reading, I'm writing. Everyone's happy.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Let Joy Be Unconfined

This is week two in my joy series and, joyfully for me, I still have lots of things to talk about. Since Monday starts with an M, it seems logical to talk about movement.

Or more specifically dance. I come from a family of dancers. My grandparents were competition ballroom dancers long before the sport was lampooned by Strictly Ballroom and ballroom dancers achieved the status of minor celebrities as judges on shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With The Stars.

My mother is also a dancer. She's spent many years teaching people to tango, salsa and do the West Coast Swing (which is its own complete and distinct subgenre).

In my family, it was not an uncommon occurence for the kitchen table to be pushed to one side during holidays. My grandfather would waltz me from one end of the room to the other in order to demonstrate a tricky turn or proper body positioning. From a young age, I knew all about things like reaching from the hip, keeping your chin up and the importance of posture.

But am I dancer?

Until a few years ago I would answer that question vehemently in the negative. No. I am not a dancer.

Maybe my rejection of dance has something to do with a basic flaw in my nature. When people tell me to go left, it makes me long to go right. If you tell me what I can't have I only want it more. If you tell me what I should do, I will dismiss it. 

Until I get there on my own.

Because recently I've rediscovered the joy that is to be found in dance. And as if that wasn't enough, the ways a body can move and be positioned have seeped into other areas of my life.

What is yoga, if not a slow elegant dance? Walking can be lyrical and running provides opportunities to leap over puddles and sashay under low hanging branches.

I'll even admit to pushing aside the coffee table in the living room. The kids and I let loose in after school dance sessions where we move our bodies to the sounds of Pink Martini. There are no technical terms, no discussions of reach or posture but there is an undisputable amount of joy.

My grandfather is no longer alive but I'm quite certain my recent love affair with dance will bring joy to my ninety-two year old grandmother. She's always insisted dance is the key to a happy life. I'm not sure if it's the only key but it definitely has a place on the key chain.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Joy Factor

Yesterday morning, as I so often do, I turned to my children for inspiration. We were all sitting around the breakfast table. Child #2 was grumbling about the lack of chocolate chips in his pancake. Child #1 was arguing that my policy of "You get what you get," when it comes to Flinstones vitamins wasn't fair if it meant she had to have Fred two days in a row.

"Let's talk about something else," I suggested. Truth be told, maybe it wasn't inspiration I needed as much as change of subject. "What brings you joy?"

They both stopped talking for a minute. Then they started to enumerate all the things that bring them joy. We're closing in on the end of school year and our lives are overwhelmed with joyful events. There are baseball parties, parades, plays, the fourth grade overnighter, the architecture exhibit, the choir concert, a birthday party, a sleepover, and the foregoing is a condensed version of what was a very long list.

I thought about their list as we walked to school in the pouring rain. By this time of year the rain, which has been falling incessantly since November, feels like the sworn enemy against me and my closet full of sundresses. But for some reason, yesterday it didn't bother me at all. 

In fact, I felt downright joyful. Was it because the kids were focused on the fun events in their near future or was it because I had looked at the weather and seen that it was supposed to be 77 degrees next week.

That's when it hit me. Anticipation is a huge part of joy.

My children are excited about what the next few weeks will bring. I'm looking forward to celebrating those events under sunny skies. The anticipation of all of those things is what makes us smile. Today, might be just an ordinary day. But the knowledge that tomorrow has the potential to be filled with friends, excitment, breaks in our routine, blue, blue skies and laughter is enough to carry us through and fill us with joy.

My favorite spot in the whole world!
I don't think it matters whether we're anticipating something big, like the fourth grade overnighter or a trip to a pristine island with white sand. Or whether it's something small, like sunshine and a sleepover.
The important thing, the joy factor, is to make sure every day we have something to look forward to tomorrow, next week, two months from now and in five years.

Which brings me to you. Are you anticipating anything special? What are the thoughts that make you smile and bring you joy no matter what the weather?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Friends I Haven't Met

When I sat down to write this post I was suddenly overwhelmed by all the things in life that bring me joy. How would I choose where to start? Luckily my thought process was interrupted by an email from a friend asking me to be part of an early Mother's Day event at Mother's Bistro in Portland.

Tiny Prints is sponsoring my well-known blogger friend Kim Demmon and a group of her friends, to talk, eat and and tweet about our conversation.

I'm sure we'll talk about Treat but since the group is a diverse bunch of women with interests that range from writing (umm, me) to cooking, social media guruing and crafting (that would be my friend Kim ) my guess is we'll also talk about a whole lot more.

Which brings me today's topic. Having dinner with a bunch of interesting woman will be fun but does it rise to the level of joy? Or put another way, what's the difference between fun and joy?

Fun is something that amuses us, a lighthearted pleasure. At first glance this dinner falls into the fun category. I love to socialize and when you combine real socializing with social media socializing it adds up to my perfect cocktail of fun. But does a lighthearted dinner with one friend and a bunch of strangers raise to the level of joy?

The more I thought about it the more I realized it does. My friends, both real and virtual, are dear to me. And I have a lot of them.

My natural instinct is to be the person who volunteers to host the end-of-season baseball party, a holiday party for as many people as I can fit in the house or have the home where children congregate as they drip popsicles and track dirt across my kitchen floor.

I've discovered that all these things fill me with a sense of community and a broader sense of my place in the world which in turn brings me great joy.

So back to tomorrow night. Will I have fun? I hope so. Actually, I'm fairly confident I will but that's not what has my attention.

What I'm focused on is the prospect of meeting interesting people who might hold a place in my life. There is joy in anticipation and joy in knowing I might meet someone who makes me laugh, sees life in a way that intrigues me or just connects with me and becomes another person who makes my life feel full.

P.S. On a sidenote, if any of you want to come along with me on my joyride you can find me on Twitter as @JohannaGarth. I'll be talking and tweeting on Thursday night starting at 7:00ish west coat time.

It would bring me even more joy if some of you popped in to say hello.