Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Bread & Wine

One day in February, when the wind was whipping and the snow was falling and I felt nothing but a vague dread that winter was never, ever going to end, an advance copy of Shauna Niequist's new book, Bread & Wine, landed on my front step. Ripping it out of its envelope, I knew even before I peeked inside that I would love it. First of all, I'd loved both of her previous books (Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet), and I read her blog avidly. But I also feel a small kinship with Niequist because of the many similarities we share: I live in Grand Rapids, where she once lived; she summers in South Haven, where I once lived; we both have one brother, husbands who love music, and two little kids; we've both run the Chicago Marathon; we both take plenty of Instagram photos of food, love summer, and read constantly. So it's no surprise that I loved Bread & Wine, too. The question is, will you love it?

I think you will. Bread & Wine is a collection of essays about a variety of topics, but I'd say it's mostly about relationships, community, travel, growth, God, courage, authenticity, and food. Niequist is especially interested in the way that food brings people together and nourishes them both physically and spiritually, so she's included a recipe at the end of almost every chapter. Think of a mash-up of Ina Garten, Molly Wizenberg, Anne Lamott, and Ruth Reichl, and you're getting an idea of the book. And though her writing is not as darkly funny as Lamott's and her foodie credentials are not as stellar as Garten's or Reichl's, what Shauna does have is the honest, encouraging voice of a neighbor or sister, whispering gently in your ear, Go ahead, just give this gather at the table thing a try.

I packed up Bread & Wine in my red suitcase and brought it to Jamaica, where I let its words wash over me when I woke up every morning to drink coffee on the balcony before the girls woke up. It was easy to breeze through each chapter, folding down the corners on the pages that spoke to me. A few of my favorite passages:

On travel and adventure: "We travel because I want my kids to learn, as I learned, that there are a million ways to live, a million ways to eat, a million ways to dress and speak and view the world. I want them to know that "our way" isn't the right way, but just one way, that children all over the world, no matter how different they seem, are just like the children in our neighborhood - they love to play, to discover, to learn."

On perfection: "What people are craving isn't perfection. People aren't longing to be impressed; they're longing to feel like they're home. If you create a space full of love and character and creativity and soul, they'll take off their shoes and curl up with gratitude and rest, no matter how small, no matter how undone, no matter how odd."

On taking a stand against Christmas madness: "The irony, of course, must not be lost on us: a season that is, at its heart, a love story - a story about faith and fragility, angels, a baby, a star - that sweet, simply beautiful story gets lost so easily in a jarring, toxic tangle of sugar and shopping bags and rushing and parking lots and expectations." This chapter, in particular resonated with me so much and reminded me of an old blog post I wrote called This is My Introverted Christmas Wish, though Shauna does a wonderful job of advising readers just how to let go of those expectations and live in the present moment more simply.

It's one thing, of course, to read encouraging words about food and community, nourishment and courage when you're on a balmy balcony in Jamaica to celebrate your brother's wedding. It's quite another to put those principles into practice when you return, it's March in Michigan, and it's still snowing and blowing. But Bread & Wine made me want to do just that.

In the weeks after I read it, I found myself returning to it again and again - this time for the recipes. In short order, I made Real Simple Cassoulet and Annette's Enchiladas, both of which are perfect for weeknight family dinners, and both of which were delicious and comforting. They've won spots in our usual rotation, for sure.

Next, my eight-year-old daughter wanted to celebrate her half-birthday. It fell on a busy school night, but, encouraged by Shauna's reminders to mark occasions big and small, I decided we could make the Simplest Dark Chocolate Mousse. It was indeed simple enough for my daughter to make with almost no help from me, resulting in a dense, rich dessert that reminded me more of my favorite pudding at Marie Catrib's here in Grand Rapids than any other dessert I've tried. No matter what you call it - mousse, pudding - it brightened up a certain March day for our family.

Then last week, I had the chance to really practice the gospel Shauna's preaching. It was our street's annual progressive dinner, and I was paired up with a neighbor I don't know very well for the soup and salad course. We've lived on this little block of older houses squished pretty close together for over six years now, and our winter progressive dinner is a tradition I cherish. It's a chance for us to gather during the darkest, coldest days of the year, when otherwise we're running as quickly as possible from our cars to our houses. I reached out to Emily: would she be interested in making a soup from Bread & Wine if I made a salad? She was. So last Saturday, I made the Green Well Harvest Salad and brought it down to Emily's house just before 6:00 p.m. Though we've watched our kids run through sprinklers together in my front yard in the summer and I often see her walking her dog, Olive, as I head out for my run, I'd never been inside her house. We talked about the story behind the beautiful painting in her dining room, about our children's hand washing techniques, about the way the soup tasted great but looked just the tiniest bit like vomit, and we made a hasty plan to ladle it into bowls and garnish it ourselves before serving it to the guests. (It worked: topped with bits of prosciutto, chives, Parmesan, and balsamic, it just looked like Winter White Bean Soup, not vomit-y at all.) Both soup and salad, I should add, were delicious, and our group of eighteen neighbors devoured both recipes completely.

Last Saturday reminded me that there's something irreplaceable about gathering in our homes to eat the food we enjoy with the people we enjoy. Shauna's gift is in making her readers feel simultaneously more vulnerable and more confident about doing just that. She reminds us that there is magic in opening our doors to let the world see our messy kitchen, that there is just as much connection to be found eating pizza on the floor as there is in candlelit dinner parties. She makes you want to be more generous with your invitations, more inclined to break out the champagne flutes for a friend's good news. She  gives you permission to feel less anxious about the dust bunnies in the corner, less worried about making everything perfect.

"This is what I want you to do: I want you to tell someone you love them, and dinner's at six. I want you to throw open your front door and welcome the people you love into the inevitable mess with hugs and laughter. I want you to light a burner on the stove, to chop and stir and season with love and abandon. Begin with an onion and a drizzle of olive oil, and go from there, any one of a million different places, any one of a million different meals.

Gather the people you love around your table and feed them with love and honesty and creativity. Feed them with your hands and the flavors and smells that remind you of home and beauty and the best stories you've ever heard, the best stories you've ever lived."

This book, Bread & Wine, will make you want to be a person who throws open the front door, who shares a meal with a neighbor, who pours wine and stays up too late talking around the kitchen table. It will make you remember what's important. It will make you hungry.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Read Elsewhere: The End of Your Life Book Club

Excerpts from The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe:

"We found ourselves discussing the three kinds of fateful choices that exist in the . . . books: the ones characters make knowing that they can never be undone; the ones they make thinking they can but learn they can't; and the ones they make thinking they can't and only later come to understand, when it's too late, when "nothing can be undone," that they could have.

Mom had always taught all of us to examine decisions by reversibility - that is, to hedge our bets. When you couldn't decide between two things, she suggested you choose the one that allowed you to change course if necessary. Not the road less traveled but the road with the exit ramp. I think that's why we had all moved, at different times in our lives, to various foreign lands without giving much thought to it. If you stayed at home, you might not get the opportunity to go to that place again. But if you went, you could always come back."


"No one in the family has ever gotten over (his) death. We talk of him daily, recounting stories and imagining what his reactions would be to new books and recent events. He remains for my family the perfect model of how you can be gone but ever present in the lives of people who loved you, in the same way that your favorite books stay with you for your entire life, no matter how long it's been since you turned the last page."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Good Things, February and March 2013

I neglected to write about this when it happened, but Annie performed her entire Suzuki Book 1 piano from memory for a little group recital at our house. She rocked it, and I'm amazed at her ability to work hard and learn quickly when it comes to music.

Jemma and her good buddy J., all spiffed up at their school art gala. (We plan to bring this photo out in about ten years, obviously.)

Above-average Valentine's Day cards . . .

 . . . and our traditional Valentine's Day special breakfast before school:

Jemma, a little tired of the photo-taking at Meijer Gardens:

Hot cocoa in a snowbank "seat" - because why wait to come inside to have the cocoa?

This lovely advance copy appearing on my doorstep:

Spending a lucky week here:

Admitting to Facebook that the eight-year-old's room usually looks like this (and feeling less alone based on the replies):

A drink with my cute husband at a swanky downtown spot we'd never tried before:

The fact that I finally wore this little jacket for the first time after buying it on a trip to Asheville, NC two or three years ago (college girlfriends, aren't you proud?):

Good cups of coffee (and interesting conversation):

The one day a year I advocate a family trip to McDonald's:

Making memories in the kitchen with this girl:

Prepping a great new salad for our annual neighborhood progressive dinner:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

News On My End

I had a little email exchange this week with one of my best college girlfriends, someone who I wish I got to talk to more, and, in it, she asked if there was any news on my end. Considering that I write this from my bed at 11:45 a.m. on a snowy Thursday, no. But further considering that I think my avoidance of this space lately is because there's not much cheerfulness to share, I'll share the questionable, the hopefully relatable, the downright depressing news anyway. You know, so as to better wallow in my mild self-pity.

1. I'm training for the Riverbank 25K, a race I've done a few times before. It's a great local race, one that I enjoy, and I'm further glad to be doing it as a part of a group from the girls' school that's raising money to support our principal, a brave woman who's been fighting cancer this school year. But it's a little frustrating that last year, my running partner Sarah and I opted out of training for the race, and that spring was a string of sunny, 70-degree days. THIS YEAR? I keep having to run nine miles in the snow when it's 23 degrees, and I'm over it.

2. Jason, who first of all falls asleep on the couch at 8:30 p.m. every night that Michigan does not play basketball, has been snoring more as of late. Last night I eventually moved out to the couch because he wouldn't stop, and I fell into a fitful, uncomfortable sleep there until one of the cats woke me up at 6:30 a.m. by bad-assing across my face with its hind feet. I now have a lovely red scratch down the right side of my face just in time to meet a bunch of new neighbors on Saturday.

3. Have I mentioned the snow? I took a stand the other day by washing my giant down coat, hanging it firmly in the back of the closet, and declaring that I was going to stop wearing it for the season, as if perhaps by donning my jean jacket or a lightweight trench I could hasten spring along. Then I got stuck standing outside a building for about fifteen minutes on Tuesday night, waiting to be let into my meeting while the wind whipped snow into my insufficiently dressed self. My mom would have strongly disapproved. (I have still not brought the down coat back out, though.)

4. I had this conversation one day with Jemma when the girls were playing detective and wanting to dress in all black:

J: Where is a black hat, so I can wear it?
Me: We don't have a black hat.
J: Yes, we do.
Me: No, we don't.
J: Yes, we do.
Me: Tell me what it looks like. Whose is it?
J:  . . . .
Me: See? We don't have a black hat.
J: But what if we DO have a black hat?
Me: . . . .

5. After hearing people rave for years about how perfect and comfortable and life-changing Lululemon studio pants are, I bought some. Which is a good thing. But the amount of days I wear them? Is not a good thing.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Every Little Thing

A week ago, I was very reluctantly leaving this glorious beach

and the beautiful Jamaican villa we'd called home for the previous six days.

I feel like the girls are in this magical sweet spot for travel right now - no longer needing naps or structure or baby proofing or even a real mealtime or bedtime, but not yet cynical about the world or bored by their dumb parents - and I want to go everywhere and do everything with them. Last week, we were here, celebrating my brother's wedding at long last to the lovely woman I finally get to call my sister.

The trip, then, was about the wedding, but that was just one afternoon, so it also got to be about waking up every morning to read and drink coffee on a balcony, about swimming at all hours of the day and night in our own little pool, about cold Red Stripes and pina coladas, about kayaking and snorkeling, about climbing Dunns River Falls with the whole wedding entourage, about eating nearly every meal in our bathing suits, about guava jelly on toast, about drip castles, about making one another helpless with laughter several times each day. It was about ignoring email and phone calls. It was about reading the girls to sleep with extra-long stories each night. It was about hearing Jemma wake us up in the morning, singing from her room: The Beatles' "Good Day, Sunshine," or Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," of course. Every little thing was (more than) alright.

The wedding? Was lovely. I don't think a single person got away with dry eyes, except maybe the two wide-eyed flower girls, both of whom were too intent on playing their roles correctly to tear up as Brett and Meagan exchanged vows under a palm-frond arch in a tropical garden. I followed everyone around, trying my best to capture the moment with my new-ish camera, and mostly just felt lucky to be part of such a happy day in such a happy place.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Read Elsewhere: How Children Succeed

I devoured Paul Tough's book, How Children Succeed, on vacation, dog-earing so many pages that it's clear I need to go ahead and return this copy to the library, then buy one for myself. Before I do, though, a few of my favorite excerpts:

"When we consider the impact of parenting on children, we tend to think that the dramatic effects are going to appear at one end or the other of the parenting-quality spectrum. A child who is physically abused is going to fare far worse, we assume, than a child who is simply ignored or discouraged. And the child of a supermom who gets lots of extra tutoring and one-on-one support is going to do way better than an average well-loved child. But what Blair's and Evans's research suggests is that regular good parenting - being helpful and attentive during a game of Jenga - can make a profound difference for a child's future prospects."

"The most critical missing piece, Randolph explained, is character. 'Whether it's the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s from southern Italy, there was always the idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful,' he said. 'Strangely, we've now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get eight hundreds on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they're doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they're screwed, to be honest. I don't think they've grown the capacities to be able to handle that.'"

"It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we know - one some level, at least - that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you're lucky."