Posted by: Amanda | May 7, 2014

How rituals are saving my sanity

"Agenda" / Photo by Amanda Crocker

“Agenda” / Photo by Amanda Crocker

Secretly, I crave the fruit of an ordered life: clear countertops, a healthier lifestyle, and tamed paperwork. I was searching my email for information about an upcoming event, and one of the results that popped up was an email I sent myself in 2009 with details about a new routine I was trying to incorporate into my life. And I know that wasn’t the first time I had planned out my days in such a way. It was time for me to admit that such a regimented life works beautifully for some, but it’s not the right path for me. Should I surrender the idea of having an ordered life, my countertops doomed to be cluttered, my piles of papers always to mock me?

Fortunately, through my slightly obsessive research tactics and talks with friends, I discovered the concept of rituals. Ritual, instead of sounding very domineering like routine (Jane Fonda, anyone?), evokes a spiritual, sensual, almost mystical practice. Lighting candles in a austere cathedral, adding lavender leaves to an afternoon bath, or meditating in a quiet space come to mind when I think of rituals.

But, how could I use rituals as a mom, writer, wife, homesteader, to increase my productivity? Because let’s face it, even with all my talk of candles and lavender sprigs, I’ve got my bottom line in mind.

I’ve synthesized my findings into this plan: Use rituals that energize or comfort you to encourage productivity or relaxation.

My morning rituals look something like this:

  • Arise early (studies show most successful creatives get up early)
  • Walk
  • Prepare breakfast
  • Enjoy breakfast with my husband before we both depart for work

I work from home, and I have experimented with different patterns. My kids homeschool but are independent enough that they can get up and complete their morning duties (breakfast, chores, one school subject) without me. I try to do very focused work from 7:30 – 9:00 every morning. Some work rituals I use to keep my energy flowing:

"Mug of Joe" / Photo by Amanda Crocker

“Mug of Joe” / Photo by Amanda Crocker

Coffee. I know, everyone drinks coffee, so what’s the big deal? I usually have coffee with breakfast, but I have started taking my coffee upstairs to my office while I work. It’s made a big difference. It’s a ritual that comforts and energizes me. It triggers my mind that it’s work time.

Roadmap. I create a daily plan that I call my roadmap. This practice takes about 5 minutes, but it helps me see the big picture of my day and reminds me to enjoy my life.

Evening rituals can definitely shape the family. It’s easy to let our nights be scattered and chaotic and slip away without being intentional. We eat dinner late because my husband gets home after 7 most evenings, but coming together at the dinner table is a faithful ritual of ours. Another goal is to spend some time together in the evenings pursuing life-giving activities, such as reading, journaling, playing games, dancing. The ritual is not necessarily what we do but the act of creating the peaceful space in which to explore those activities by turning off the devices.

"Book Stack" / Photo by Amanda Crocker

“Book Stack” / Photo by Amanda Crocker

Each of these rituals either inspire me to be productive or help me to relax–or both because they engage my senses in a way that  Preparing and enjoying an unhurried breakfast with my husband sets a relaxed tone for the morning, but it also appeals to all my senses–the crack and sizzle of eggs, the fresh citrus scent, the beauty of a perfect slice of frittata. It’s something we look forward to and helps me feel ready to work. When I design my day’s roadmap, I use colorful pens and doodle a sketch or two in the margins, making myself feel less trapped by a routine and more confident about my day.

What rituals do you have in your life?

 

 

 

Posted by: Amanda | February 12, 2013

Mardi Gras: a cake fit for kings

FullCake

I’m not sure I even knew what Mardi Gras was until I moved to Texas, and I know I’d never heard of a king cake. But, now that I’ve lived in Austin (a town that will celebrate anything for an excuse to party) for nearly a decade, it is time I attempted to create a Mardi Gras king cake.

I love the story of the king cake, that the king cake represents the three kings who visited the young Jesus and brought him gifts. The colors of Mardi Gras represent justice, faith, and power. I also like the parts of history that suggest that at king cake parties, the revelers would save one piece for a poor person.

The king cake adventure started yesterday because a king cake, let me tell you, is not a last-minute operation. Should you want to create your own king cake, from scratch, here’s the plan I used:

1 day before — mix the brioche dough

I read that different cultures used different kinds of dough for their king cake. I decided to use the dough of the French, brioche. I’m a believer in the Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes method of breadmaking, so I used their brioche recipe to whip up some brioche dough in about 5 minutes yesterday.  I made a half batch (2 pounds), so here’s what I mixed up in a bowl:

  • 3/4 cup lukewarm water
  • 3/4 tablespoon yeast
  • 3/4 tablespoon salt (I use Morton Coarse Kosher Salt)
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 1/2 sticks of unsalted sweet cream butter
  • 3 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Just mix it all in a bowl until all the flour is incorporated into a nice rich dough. It’s going to look lumpy and wet, but that’s ok! Let it rise on your counter for a couple hours, covered with a towel. Keep it covered with the towel and put it in the fridge to chill so that it’s easier to handle tomorrow when you make your king cake.

the morning of — make sprinkles and prepare filling ingredients

Traditional king cakes didn’t have the colored sprinkles on them. But, I wanted to use the colors of Mardi Gras, so I wanted to use a more southeastern USA glaze and sprinkle topping on this king cake of mine. However, the cheapest I found sugar sprinkles was $1.99 a pack, and I didn’t really want to pay $6 for the sugar sprinkles on this cake. I learned that making colored sugar is pretty easy, so I decided to give it a whirl since I had a little bit of sugar in my pantry and food coloring.

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Put a little sugar in a bowl. Add a few drops of food coloring. Stir it up until the color is evenly distributed and give it an hour to dry out a bit. And you’re done. That’s it. The cheapest sugar sprinkles ever and no half bottles of sprinkles leftover to store. I made the purple and yellow sprinkles above. The green sprinkles were leftover from Christmas, and that’s why there are a few red sprinkles, too.

To get started on the filling, open a pack of cream cheese and drop it into a mixing bowl to soften. Do not use any light or fat-free stuff. It’s just gross. Use the full-fat real deal cream cheese. This is a king cake, after all.

a couple hours or more later — make the filling

Add 1 cup of powdered sugar and some flavoring to your cream cheese. I used Watkin’s pure lemon extract, but you could use vanilla or almond or whatever. Then use your mixer to make the filling very creamy. Set it aside while you prepare your bread dough.

In my research of king cakes, I learned that traditional king cakes were not usually filled. That trend started in the southeastern US–of course! Being from the southeastern US, I find the idea of a filling very appealing, so I researched some different ways to fill king cakes–cinnamon sugar, praline, cream cheese, so many options. The filling recipe I decided to use is from Christy Jordan’s website, Southern Plate, where she has a quick and easy King Cake recipe. The filling is 8 ounces of cream cheese (softened), 1 cup of confectioner’s sugar, and 1 tsp of lemon flavor.

a few minutes later — prepare the dough

Now, you take out a pound of your chilled brioche dough. If you used the recipe above, you should have about two pounds of brioche chilling in your fridge. Flour a surface. Generously use that flour. Mine stuck even with a good bit of flour, so don’t be shy. Roll the dough out to a good sized rectangle. Mine was about 9×16 or so. Spread the filling onto the dough, leaving a little perimeter with no filling, and roll it up long ways into a log. Use some water if you need to stick the last bit of dough together. Bring the log together to form a circle. Again, you can use some water to stick the ends of the log together. Now, the dough needs to rise. I went ahead and put some parchment paper on my baking stone and rubbed it with butter and put my ring on the butter. Then, I rubbed melted butter all over the dough before covering it with plastic wrap.

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about an hour later — cook the cake

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Remove plastic wrap. Preheat the oven to 350. Bake the cake for 25-35 minutes depending on your oven. You’ll want a nice golden crust that slightly cracks when touched. Remove cake when done. Allow to cool completely. I moved mine to wire racks (parchment and all) to promote faster cooling.

about an hour later — glaze and decorate the cake

Mix up a glaze. A friend brought me a bottle of real Mexican vanilla yesterday, so I was itching to use it. I mixed about a teaspoon of it, some confectioner’s sugar (a little over a cup), and some whole milk (1.5-2.5 tablespoons). I added the milk gradually until the glaze looked like glaze. Then, I drizzled the glaze over the cake while the cake was still on the parchment paper. Then, I immediately sprinkled on the colored sugars. I gave it a minute to let the glaze start to harden and then I removed the cake from the parchment and put it on a pretty plate.

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finally — enjoy the cake

We waited patiently for Daddy to get home from work before slicing the cake and having an afternoon snack. Trust me, y’all, this goes great with black coffee!

BestwithBlackCoffee

Posted by: Amanda | January 16, 2013

What I’m Writing Now

I’ve kept pondering how I can write more. Should I set a certain time and just devote myself to it? Should I write when the mood hits? Some of the writers I admire most say to be a writer you have to write every day even if you have the flu and can’t sit up in bed. Well, so I made some of that up. But at least that’s how I feel sometimes–like if I’m not writing every day at 5 am. or 8 pm or whatever time I’ve determined to write, I’m a loser in this whole craft.

But, I’ve decided I have to give up those thoughts and focus more on why I write. Then when and where doesn’t really matter that much to me. But, I guess some of that comes from being a mom to two young kids. Their schedules change so much that when and where is like the breeze.

What I’ve been focusing on lately is how I feel when I write. It’s different than anything else I ever experience. It’s that first breath of air I take after being underwater just a little longer than my limit. It feels me up and burns my insides just a little, but it does so in a freeing, good way.

I have some guilt that I have to shed about writing. I have kids, a husband, a home to care for, some part-time work, hobbies, friends, clutter to sort, service to render. And I think of my writing like, well, that thing that I’ll do if I have some leftover time and everyone else is asleep. What’s funny is that I’m a better person to all around me when I write. I’m also better to myself. But, I beat myself up, won’t let myself enjoy the writing as much as I should.

Why do I beat myself up? I think of writing as a way I can earn some money for the family, and let’s be honest, dabbling around with some fiction and creative nonfiction (which I know is my true passion) isn’t a guarantee of steady income that will pay the bills. I’ve had to let go of the idea of seeing writing as a business. It seemed I always fell into the idea of “oh, if I’m writing, I can deduct those paper clips,” or “well, if I don’t make at least x amount of dollars this year with this stuff, then I will give it up forever.” Instead, I’ve had to embrace the idea of writing totally, completely, 100% for the passion of it.

And, I’ve thought a lot about what kind of writing really gives me that breath of much needed air into the lungs of my spirit, and it’s writing creative nonfiction. I love creating characters and making up stories and letting characters tell me what’s going on in their lives, but I can’t shake the way my body and mind swells when I write creative nonfiction.

What am I writing now? I’m writing love letters, love letters to my family and friends and love letters to myself. They are sometimes cheesy and sometimes not, but they are what I’m putting on paper. Maybe one day you’ll get to read them. And maybe not.

Posted by: Amanda | August 3, 2012

Red Pepper Soup (Raw and Vegan)

It’s currently about 103 degrees, and it’s 7:30 in the evening. My throat’s a little scratchy, and I’d like some soup but I really don’t want to heat up my kitchen with a pot on the stove. I’m also only eating fruits, veggies, and fats this week as part of a spiritual fast and physical cleanse.

Easy fix:

  1. Chop one red bell pepper. You can do this quickly, no need for a fine dice.
  2. Chop one big carrot into several chunks about the size of baby carrots.
  3. Chop one tablespoon of onion.
  4. Put all the above in the blender.
  5. Put one cup of water in the microwave for 90 seconds.
  6. While that water is heating up, add half an avocado to the blender.
  7. Add in the water.
  8. Blend for 5 minutes.
  9. Pour the warm soup into a bowl, season it with salt and hot sauce, and enjoy a raw, vegan meal.
Posted by: Amanda | May 23, 2012

Telling the Truth

“Did you ever tell a lie?” As Dalton says these words, four clear blue eyes drill into me–make that six if you include the blue eyes of my husband, laughing a little.

***

I’m the only one with brown eyes. When I found out four-and-a-half years ago that the baby in my uterus was a girl, I wondered whether she’d have brown eyes. I imagined those big brown eyes looking up at me. I would sing her the chorus of “Brown-Eyed Girl” as I rocked her to sleep at night. But that baby came out with the biggest, bluest eyes, and I loved them.

A week rarely goes by without someone, like the cashier at Walgreen’s this past Saturday, mentioning my kids’ eyes. They look from them to me and say, “Where did they get those beautiful eyes?”

Dalton’s eyes have changed. I tell him they look like the stormy sea just after sunset. They are dark blue gray with specks of golden brown near the pupils. Lily’s eyes are still clear blue and so round, especially when she pouts.

When we were dating, Paul told me about an ex-girlfriend who had blue eyes. Her eyes darkened when she lied. “They turned brown,” he said as he looked into my eyes. As we stood by the river, I wondered what he thought about my eyes.

***

“Yes, of course, I’ve lied before,” I answer. Both kids open their eyes a little wider, if that’s even possible. “When did you lie,” Lily asks.

A few choice incidents flash through my mind, but I’m looking for kid friendly. “Well, one time, I lied to your Nana, my Momma. My brother Blake and I caught a wild cat. We tied a rope around its neck, not to be mean but to keep it as a pet (not that we needed another cat in our collection of pets). Somehow it escaped and started running into the woods, howling and yowling. It got tangled in the woods.

When Nana heard the cat making those terrible noises, she ran out into the yard and saw it tangled in the saplings and bushes. She ran out to the woods, saved the cat. I think she even got scratched.”

At this point in the story, the kids are excited. It is a pretty daring story after all.

“But, that’s when Blake and I saw the fire in her eyes. She was angry at us for doing that to the cat. She came to the porch where we were still both standing, mouths open, our brown eyes fixated on her.

‘Who tied up the cat?’ she asked. Blake said that he had done it and was punished.

But you know what? I had done most of the tying of that cat, and I had told Blake to tell Nana that he had done it.”

Lily sputters a bit as she says, “You lied to Nana, your Momma?”

“Yes, I did. But later she found out the truth and she didn’t trust me as much. And I think I had to do extra chores for a week as payback for lying.”

This story is pretty devious to my 7-and-a-half-year old son and his little sister. They love it so much that they want to hear me tell more about lies I’ve told. So, I do.

We share a few stories about lying as we finish dinner and share some ice cream sandwiches for dessert. I look around, and I’m happy that our family is sharing dinner together at the table, laughing and telling jokes. But, the brown eyes? I’m happy they’re all mine.

Posted by: Amanda | February 9, 2012

February’s Experiment: Week 1 Results

As I sat down this morning to log yesterday’s spending and put together the results from our first week, I found a story about a family who plans to not spend any money at all in February, going so far as walking instead of driving. They did stock up on groceries on January 31. Here’s the full story if you’re interested: Dunnings of California

Our first week of February? We spent more than our $100, but we have some major victories. Here’s the breakdown:

February 2: Purchased two toothbrushes to take to a friend’s birthday party. She requested toothbrushes for a children’s charity as her birthday gift (awesome idea, by the way). Total: $10.80

February 3: Purchased gas for the Mazda CX-7 for $60.00. Also purchased groceries at Randall’s for $25.10. Went back to Randall’s to get baking soda and paper plates for $2.61 (used money out of the change jar for that purchase). Total: $87.71

February 5: Purchased a Statesman for $2.00

February 7: Purchased hamburger buns for that evening’s dinner and milk at Randall’s. Total: $6.57

Weekly grand total: 107.08

Even though we went a bit (less than 10%) over budget, we’re pretty happy with the way the week went.

Victory number 1: We didn’t eat out one single time at any establishment. I work on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and usually, Paul treats the kids to a pizza. But, even a cheap pizza is $10. For one meal, that was too much to pay. Instead, one night Paul made the kids burgers with beef from our bulk stock and the buns he picked up at Randall’s. A goal of mine is to make all our bread at home. It would save a ton of money but it does take time. This week, though, Paul found a great deal on buns at Randall’s: buy one pack, get one free. So he already has his buns ready for next week in case he decides to make burgers again.

Victory number 2: We didn’t buy any junk. Usually the kids want to spend their allowance. We like to give them autonomy with their allowances, but I told them that for the month of February, they have to save all their money. Of course, their materialistic little minds are already figuring out how much money they’ll have by March and what they will buy. One exception to this victory: I bought a pack of the cheapest paper plates that Randall’s sells. We rarely ever buy paper plates, but this week we already had two events scheduled at our house. I thought it would be a good idea to have them on hand in case we ran out of plates.

Victory number 3: We had two events at our house. Friday night, we had a community dinner. We served a baked potato bar and made-from-scratch orange pound cake for dessert. Everyone seemed to have a great time. Even though some of the ingredients we had on hand, I had to do a little shopping for the dinner. After it was all said and done, we figured out that it cost about $10 in groceries to feed everyone. Our second event was a Super Bowl party on Sunday. I used leftover potatoes from the community dinner to make potato skins, and the second pound cake loaf from the recipe for Friday night, and mixed together some brownie mixes that I already had on hand and shaped them into a massive football. I was tempted to buy the football cake at Randall’s but stood my ground. Everyone who attended the Super Bowl party also brought snacks and treats, so there was so much food that we are now joking that the Super Bowl is the new Thanksgiving.

Victory Number 4: We didn’t waste much (if any). I read that as a nation, the US wastes 40% of its food. FORTY PERCENT!!!! That’s crazy. Before we decided to do this February Experiment, I had already started pondering this 40% waste thing. But, now that we’re more conscious of our money, I’m focusing on how to waste less. I’ve found some interesting recipes online to help with wasting less. One of my favorites: turn any leftover bread or bread pieces into bread crumbs or French toast. I made a fabulous cabbage soup yesterday with leftover veggies and some cabbage from my CSA. But, focusing on eating what we have sometimes meant I made some weird choices: roasted fennel for breakfast, say. One of my biggest victories here: I baked a sweet potato to take to the gym for a post-workout snack. I often buy a post-workout snack from the gym cafe, which runs about $3 plus tax for about a half cup of chickpeas, spinach, and pasta.

Victory Number 5: We spent the weekend at home, being practical and having fun instead of out running around doing errands, shopping, and eating out. We moved into our new house this past August, and we’ve had a pile of framed art sitting in the garage. This weekend, we decided to organize the garage which meant doing something with the pile of framed art. I’m proud to say I now have some of my favorite art (the vintage Last Supper painting, for instance) now throughout my house. I’m also proud to say that our garage is super organized. We do a lot of our homeschooling in there (we tend to get very messy during art and science projects), so the clutter was impeding our educational pursuits. Yesterday, the kids and I had a blast making Valentines for our homeschool group Valentine party this Friday. (And to make those Valentines, we used scrap paper, glue we already had, and envelopes we already had.)

The biggest challenges for me:

Not being able to buy books. I love to read, and I have a Kindle. Instead of buying the ebook I want to read, I put the ebook on hold with the library’s downloadbles account. Sometimes the wait can be weeks or months for popular titles! Right now, I’m number 66 waiting for The Night Circus.
Not going to the supermarket 18 times before a get together. While this felt challenging at first, it turned into a blessing. I got a lot more done on the day of events than I normally do because I wasn’t spending time in the store, shopping and standing in line.

Posted by: Amanda | February 8, 2012

February’s Experiment: The “Rules”

This post is a long and winding detail of one middle class American family’s experiment in spending less.

To avoid generalizing, I’m not going to say that most Americans spend too much money. What I will say is that my family spends too much money on junk we don’t need or on junk we might need but already have but can’t find because we have too much stuff (even after purging greatly this past summer during our big move). We also spend too much on eating out. For February, we are trying a new experiment: spend dramatically less than we usually do.

The goals:

  • Be more mindful of spending.
  • Eat out less.
  • Spend less time in stores and more time together, pursuing our interests.
  • Be more industrious, prepared, and smart with what we already have.
  • Save money!

The rules are vague, but here’s what we’ve kind of decided:

  • We will spend only $100 a week in cash.
  • This $100 total doesn’t include bills we pay at the beginning of the month like our mortgage, electricity, HOA dues, internet and so forth. Part of February, though, is to evaluate our spending in optional areas such as communications, which is an insane part of our budget (and we don’t even have cable!).
  • Gift cards and already purchased Groupons/deal vouchers don’t count to the total either. We aren’t planning to use any unless they expire in February.
  • We aren’t counting the price of things we’ve pre-purchased (like the beef we buy in bulk that’s already in our freezer or the CSA that delivers our shares on Wednesdays). We were also lucky that our truck was already full of gas before this month started. (And we didn’t go out on January 31 and fill up our cars, buy 4 gallons of milk, and 20 boxes of Cheerios. We didn’t even decide to do this until January 31 right as we were headed to bed.)
  • We aren’t counting medical copays or prescription copays since we use a FSA for those purchases.
  • We are trying to not eat out at all unless we have a Groupon/deal voucher/gift card that expires. One of the goals of this experiment is to be more prepared for days when we aren’t home and to have more meals at home. We homeschool the kids, and all too often instead of packing them a lunch when we’re going to be out all day, I just think, “Oh, we’ll stop somewhere.”
  • So really what does the $100 include? Gas and any groceries/supplies we actually purchase during the week with our cash on hand. (We already don’t use credit cards for purchases that we don’t pay off in the same month, but that same rule applies. If we use a credit card to purchase gas, it counts toward the $100.)

Got all that? Make total sense? And, yes, I know: what a first-world problem to have all your bills paid and only $400 left for the month for gas and groceries. And, yes you can judge: “But you aren’t really just spending $100 a week. And seriously, gift cards?” We’re working on our lifestyle one baby step at a time.


Posted by: Amanda | November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving at Mama Lillie’s

When I was a kid, Thanksgiving was the last big barrier to cross before Christmas. There was a lot of hustle and bustle. We (the kids and Daddy) watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade while Momma finished any cooking she was doing. Of all the women who brought food to the big family gathering, Momma was the best cook. She made the dressing, usually some desserts, and probably other dishes that I don’t remember.

What I do remember is the insane amount of food that spread across my great grandmother’s dining table. We always went to Mama Lillie’s house for Thanksgiving and Christmas; she was my Momma’s maternal grandmother. The group that gathered there consisted mostly of her four grandchildren and all their children (my first cousins) and any significant others (as all of us cousins got older). Her four grandchildren (my mother Paula and her four brothers Dean, John, and Dudley) and their spouses trickled in, bringing dish after dish of food and pack after pack of kids (there was usually about 10 of us first cousins). A few people smoked, which filled the house with a haze. The men who drank alcohol did so on the sly out in the driveway behind the piles of cars because Mama Lillie did not approve.

In northwestern Alabama, the weather on Thanksgiving could go just about any direction. It could be cold (which means lower than 48 degrees), or it could be pleasant (around 76). It could be raining. But there was never snow–at least not that I know of. But, usually, it was a crisp enough autumn day to wear a sweater, which of course became almost unbearable in Mama Lillie’s house where both gas furnaces would be blaring, the oven and every stovetop burner going at full blast, and the cigarette smoke swirling in the air.

What I remember most is that by the time we got to Mama Lillie’s house I was starving, but I knew that when we got there it would be a while before we could get the buffet train rolling. I’d walk into the dining room several times, just looking at the progress. You’d think that after years years of doing the same thing on Thanksgiving, I would have learned to eat more breakfast. My brother and sister and I might sneak a bowl of cereal while we watched the parade before leaving for Mama Lillie’s, but we knew it was best to stay clear of the kitchen while Momma finished the dressing. As everyone arrived, I’d get hugged and kissed over and over again. “Hey, Manda Bug,” everyone would say. As the cousins close to my age arrived, Randall and Jana, we’d head to one of the back rooms to plot the day.

There were a few strange dishes that always appeared at Thanksgiving. Most of these no one (or least very few people) ate because they were so hideous looking. They probably have an official name, but one of these recipes (I call them Mayo Pears) consisted of pear halves filled with a scoop of mayo sprinkled with shredded cheddar cheese and topped with a cherry. These pears struck fear into my very core. The same thing happened when I saw a big plastic Tupperware bowl full of something I think they called Waldorf Salad. All I know is that it appeared to be another fruit/mayo combo.  I later learned that these dishes were made by Mama Lillie–not because anyone really liked them but because her husband (who passed away when I was 2) had loved them when he was alive. Those pears which scared the hell out of me were a tribute to the love of her life.

The womenfolk always turned the utility room into the dessert bar, lining up pies and cookies and bars and 9×13 pans of joy also called Mississippi Mud on the deep freeze and the dryer and the washing machine. Every year I looked forward to my Aunt Becky (married to my uncle Dean) bringing a cheesecake. It was sometimes cherry, sometimes strawberry, other times both. I didn’t like the cherries, so I just raked the topping off. But, my, how I loved some cheesecake. It may have been one of those Jello Cheesecakes, but whatever it was it was heavenly.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The adults usually sent the kids through the buffet line first and sent us off to the formal living room where Mama Lillie kept her owl collection, at least 100 glass owls arranged on shelves and in glass cases around her tiny living room. The kids would spread around the coffee table. Sometimes the adults would separate the older kids from the younger kids. I can’t remember if this happened as we got older or if it was an arbitrary decision.

I started thinking about our crazy Thanksgiving celebrations yesterday and even more this morning as I was looking through the current issue of Southern Living. There was a special section on centerpieces/holiday table settings/stuff like that. There was no room for a centerpiece at Mama Lillie’s house because there was too much food. I mean who wants a big crystal bowl full of gold spray painted pine cones when you can have another casserole there instead? Things got a little crazy with the cooking and more and more pans of food just kept showing up. For instance, my mom might be signed up to make dressing and green beans and one dessert. But, she would get to going in the kitchen and decide to bring mac and cheese and another dessert or two. Then, she’d remember that maybe no one was bringing rolls and she’d send Daddy (Chuck) out to the Piggly Wiggly to pick up some of those brown-and-serve rolls that my sister preferred to eat uncooked but still smeared with butter. And, of course, everyone had their ideas about what makes dressing good. Momma’s dressing is simple–cornbread, onions, sage, and some chicken. Other people want to put celery, hard-boiled eggs and such in theirs, so suddenly the table would have three pans of dressing on it. And table settings? I’m not sure, but I think one year we finally convinced Mama Lillie to let us use styrofoam, those divided plates that look a little like school lunch trays. We didn’t have placecards, but why do you need placecards if everyone already knows everyone? As the cousins got older, we started bringing boyfriends and girlfriends, but all it took was a quick introduction and there were assimilated into the herd.

I think the same thing was probably going on at my uncle’s homes that was going on at ours. Kids plopped on the couch, dressed and waiting on time to go. It seemed that John’s wife (at least at the time) Wanda would bring the Mississippi Mud (If you’ve never had this dessert, don’t let the name scare you. It’s a mish mash of things surrounded in gooey chocolate. And it’s awesome if I remember correctly) every year. I can imagine her yelling at her kids (Adam, Mathew, and Samantha) to stay out of the kitchen while she finished making the mud, maybe handing them a honey bun for breakfast, then remembering that maybe no one had signed up for rolls and sending John out to the Foodland to grab a pack or two of those brown-and-serve rolls. Or, if as Aunt Becky prepared the cheesecake she suddenly remembered I didn’t like the cherry topping and sent Dean or her son Randall after he could drive to the Piggly Wiggly to get a can of strawberry topping instead and mentioned that while he was there he might just pick up some canned sweet potatoes and marshmallows. After all, did anyone sign up to bring the sweet potato cassserole?

Sometimes after eating, a bunch of us would go out into the field behind Mama Lillie’s backyard and play football or freeze tag or something. My Uncle Dudley might climb a tree just for fun, which would make Uncle John climb a tree just for fun. My grandmother Ma would sit in a lawn chair, smoking and watching with Dudley’s wife (at least at the time) Andrea. The women would work to combine leftovers into pans and putting them in the oven (which is where leftovers were always stored), washing up dirty dishes, cleaning up the utility room dessert bar, and sweeping the floor. One of my favorite parts of the day happened after everyone had gone home. It would be dark and seem later than it actually was, but we’d all pack into the car again (probably our Pontiac Bonneville) and drive the few miles back to Mama Lillie’s house for leftovers. It always seemed so quiet there on Thanksgiving night after the 20 or so people had left, taking their empty pans home, and we’d get to visit with her, laughing about things I can’t remember now.

My last Thanksgiving at Mama Lillie’s was the year I turned 19. She died the following January. I’m 32 now. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 13 years since we all gathered at that little house, crammed into every room, eating piles of food, laughing and playing games, trying to breathe in the heat and the smoke and avoiding the mayo pears. At least I avoided the mayo pears. I’m not sure who ate the 2 or 3 that were missing off the plate. I wonder if after everyone left, and Mama Lillie was alone again, in the quiet of Thanksgiving night if she cried as she packed up the untouched Waldorf salad, remembering a different time.

Posted by: Amanda | August 3, 2011

We bought a house or How we wound up in the ‘burbs

I committed to writing more early this year. What I didn’t know then is that our life would get even busier than it was. See, I quit a good full-time job a couple years ago to make room for life. And, it’s been great. I work a little part-time (some teaching, some contract gigs). Overall, we have a much better balance than we’ve had in a long time.

Then, this summer happened. Paul went back to grad school. He got an amazing fellowship at the University of Texas to study engineering and education. No, we are not flying the Longhorn flag, but he is spending a lot of time on the UT campus this summer. I lived in Austin more than 7 years and have barely been on campus–except a few museum trips. It’s like a different city. The traffic is insane: one day I dropped Paul off for class, and I nearly ran over 2 bicyclists, a Segway-er, and a pedestrian who decided that waiting for a “safe to walk” light wasn’t on his schedule. Thank goodness Paul usually takes the commuter rail system to class. It’s also a great way to see Austin: one person who walks by on campus might be a completely normal looking college co-ed, a cute blonde girl wearing short denim shorts and a tight Longhorn t-shirt. However, the next person who walks by is a punk rocker with bright pink hair and no fewer than 26 bracelets on each arm. Then, there’s a guy in a suit, walking quickly somewhere.

But, back to this summer and the house purchase and all. Paul and I have been committed for some time to not spend more money than we have. For the past 7 years, we’ve rented the same house in north Austin. Unfortunately, our landlord got sick. One thing lead to another and we found ourselves looking for a new place to live. At first, we planned to rent, so we looked at many, many apartment complexes. And, wow! Austin has some gorgeous apartments. But, finding a 3-bedroom apartment was a little difficult. And when we did find some, the rent was upwards of $1400/1500. So, we started exploring the home buying world. We looked at a few in our current neighborhood. Many were nice, but not exactly what we were looking for. The ones we liked were going to need serious maintenance pronto.

Finally, we found a townhome in Cedar Park that we really liked. The only drawback was the distance from where Paul works. We’ve lived about 2 miles from his job since he started working there 6 years ago. The new place in Cedar Park would put us about 10 more miles out. But, we decided to take the plunge. We made an offer, went into contract, applied for a loan, and waited for our closing date. During the waiting, we packed up the contents of our house. We donated bags and bags and bags and boxes and boxes and boxes of clothes, toys, books. We sold many items on Craigslist. My sister came over almost every day to help keep the packing process going. She knows me. I would have stared at the wall for two hours–“making a plan” of what to do next. She just does what’s next. I needed that.

Then, we got the call that we were clear to close on the last possible day to close and the worst possible day to close–about a month after we went into contract on the townhome. We spent 5 hours in the closing room with our realtors, a candy jar full of chocolate, and a cup of pens. Seriously, it took forever. Documents had errors. Numbers were wrong here and there. But, we left at 6:39 pm, got the keys to our new place, and now we’re unpacking, trying to get moved in. The movers counted 105 boxes as they carried our belongings into the new place. We took many more as we spent this past weekend scrambling to get stuff moved out of the old place and into the new one.

As I was finishing up cleaning the old rental house, our home of 7 years, I started hallucinating. I blame it on not eating breakfast that morning and not staying hydrating. I was in the garage, sweeping and picking up little odds and ends that we had missed. I swear I saw a badger running around in the corners. It was probably the leaves that we hadn’t swept out since the past fall.

I made one last pass through the house. I was alone, and the place felt big and empty (though in America’s house terms, it’s pretty small at 1200 square feet). When we moved in that house, I was about 3 months pregnant with Dalton. We’ve lived life in that house, and it was a little weird to know that I’d never turn down this street again to go home. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not sad. I’m positively giddy to be moving into a brand new house with hardwood floors and granite and a garage that we might actually use as a garage. I’m seeing it as a clean start–a chance to organize better and all that. But, we have a lot of memories in this first Austin home; Dalton’s been a little emotional about the packing, moving, and leaving. I think his mind can’t grip what it all means.

As I walked out and locked the door one last time, I noticed the yard was still full of toys. I piled the old toys, empty cans the kids played with, spoons for digging in dirt, and old flower pots on the curb for bulky collection. Then, as I was leaving, a little guy we’ve been seeing for a while–a Texas spiny lizard–showed up on the porch. Almost every week this summer, he’s made an appearance. For some reason, he’s stayed in our yard despite the kids terrorizing him with their butterfly nets. They’ve caught many reptiles in their nets (and I’m afraid they made have “loved” one to an early death), but they could never catch this guy. He’s fast. I smiled at him. I think he was saying goodbye in his reptilian way. Or, maybe he’s as glad as we are that we’re off to a new adventure. Now, at least till the next renters show up, he can sun on the porch in peace.

 

Posted by: Amanda | June 23, 2011

A Mini Tri and Why You Should Read A Runner’s Dozen

It’s comic, really. Whitney’s swimming ahead of me, just by a bit. We’re both strong swimmers, and ever since we did Danskin in 2005 together, I’ve gotten into the habit of following her, just by a bit. At Danskin, the open water swim was nothing like what I’d thought. It was a mass of confusion with swimmers lunging into the water on all sides of me, but as the crowds evened out, Whitney and I were still pacing pretty much the same. I used the small Nike swosh on the back of her swim top to keep myself oriented because, although I’m a good swimmer, I don’t swim very straight. I weave, and at times I even bob.

And that brings me back to this comedy I’m telling. Whitney and I decided to do what we’re calling “Mini Triathlons Minus the Bike.” So, I guess technically it’s not a triathlon, but let’s not get too carried away with details. Our first Mini Tri occurred at the Quarry Lake on Saturday, June 18. We decided to run first because we are making things up as we go, and we thought it would be nice to cool off in the lake after the run. As I have neglected running since completing the Danskin in 2005, I decided to start a Couch to 5K program that Whitney recommended. Day 1 of that program would start with this Mini Tri. The run is no big deal (unless you count the strange mother-daughter pair who passed me along the way, arguing about whether the daughter should run and whether the daughter should be a triathlete).  But, all in all Whitney breezed through a quick 3K run while I heaved and panted through Workout 1 of Couch to 5K.

Back to the comedy. I promise there’s funny stuff coming your way. Whitney and I splash into the lake after running in the 98% humidity, and it’s amazing. The cool of the water surrounds me, and I feel my sweat fade away. I really want to grab a pool noodle and just float away for about an hour. However, even though we do make the rules, I’m not sure we could call that segment 2 of the Mini Tri. We decide after a few minutes of basking in the cool of the lake that we’ll do the half mile loop around the lake. Like I said, this is our Mini Tri, and we’re making the rules as we go. About halfway to the first marker, we decide we’ll time ourselves. I can’t see in the water, but Whitney’s got these cool prescription goggles, so as I adjust controls on the watch, she’s carefully making sure we’re on the right screen. “Does it say ‘HOLD TO RESET’?” I ask her. And, remember, we’re in a lake, so we’re treading water about halfway to a buoy. My arm dips into the water every third tread, and I push at the buttons while Whitney reports what’s on the screen. Finally, we get the stopwatch ticking, and we continue and take a quick breather at the buoy.

Between that buoy and the next, the water gets as Whitney says “choppy.” I signed up to swim a Mini Tri in a quarry lake–not the Pacific, but every time I turn to the right to breathe, I inhale through my mouth copius amounts of sumptious lake water. It’s disgusting. We stop to tread water a little and I realize the choppy water is coming from the wind, and with each pound of the water my head bobs and my face takes a little dive into the lovely lake water. A couple swimmers glide past us while we’re treading. Whitney’s watching me, and I mention that I have a chicken head. In tune to the water, I’m still bobbing. Whitney’s laughter turns to a wheeze, and I’m not sure if we can continue. But, we do, fully hydrating ourselves with lake water. No chance of dehydration here, folks!

Past the halfway point, I get disoriented and look up. I should have stayed right with the back of Whitney’s swimsuit in my sights as I know it’s necessary for my own survival, but I let myself just go with the flow. Unfortunately, my flow is never a straight path, and I’ve veered off track a good bit, heading perpedicularly to where we were going. Trying to catch up, I swim with fury and remember that if I swim too hard, I’ll tire my muscles. Then, I worry about cramps, which makes me worry about what’s at the bottom of the lake. I grew up swimming in a pretty nasty river, so I’m not sure why I’m suddenly creeped out by what might be in the lake. So, I swim a little harder to catch back up to Whitney and then I get back into stride with her in time to get a lash of sediment-carrying water in the face. I start spitting the grit out of my mouth and worry that Whitney will think I’m yelling for help. I probably should be.

When we finish, we head to the showers, clean up, and three hours after we arrived, get ready to leave the area. I hand Whitney an apple. I had brought a couple as a little post-tri snack. She looks at me like I’ve lost my mind, and I have a little–all that water whipping my head around took its toll–and she says, “I think I’ll have that later.” Oh, yes, we should eat a full lunch now, shouldn’t we?

All this to say that Whitney is a runner, and I thought I was a swimmer. And, you should get over to A Runner’s Dozen and read about the 12 races Whitney’s doing this year. She’s a champion. And I wouldn’t want to bob in a lake without her.

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