Viewing entries tagged

"Go With the Flow" Is Terrible Advice

It’s 10 a.m. on Monday. Your week is just beginning, and you’ve already made dozens of choices without even thinking about it it. The blue shirt or the white shirt. Splenda or raw sugar. The scenic route or the quick route. Music or NPR. Though it may not always feel like it, we’re experts at making decisions. And every so often along comes a really hard choice. We struggle with it, wrestle with it, agonize over it. We draw lines down the middle of the page with “pros” in one column and “cons” in the other. We create reasons for this instead of that, blue over white, NPR instead of the playlist.

There is an age-old tidbit of wisdom that reveres “going with the flow.” After watching Ruth Chang’s video, it occurred to me that “go with the flow” is just about the worst advice anyone could give. The happiest people don’t go with the flow, they swim upstream. Happy people don’t let life steer them down the path, they head to the top, soak up the view, then take a leap of faith.

It’s 10 a.m on Monday. Your week is just beginning. What will you choose this week?

The Power of Gratitude

“A letter is always better than a phone call. People write things in letters they would never say in person. They permit themselves to write down feelings and observations using emotional syntax far more intimate and powerful than speech will allow.” | Alice Steinbach Last night I stumbled across a powerful video. It begins with a researcher asking participants to write a letter of gratitude to a person who has greatly influenced them. Simple, right?

So they thought.

After the participants have fired off their letters, the researcher asks them to pick up the phone and call the person they’ve written about in order to read the letter aloud to the intended recipient. The immediate rise in anxiety is almost palpable. As each person lifts the receiver, you begin to see the walls of their everyday selves crumble. In this moment of unusually vulnerable truth-telling, viewers witness a transformation as each letter writer becomes a truer version of themselves. It quickly becomes apparent that this is a lesson in something much greater than letter writing; it’s a practice in expressing a deeper sense of gratitude most of us feel, but few of make a habit of regularly vocalizing to the people in our lives.

The video concludes with research findings. Participants who wrote letters, but were unable to call the recipient to share, experienced a small bump in happiness in the time between arriving at the lab and when they left. Participants who wrote a letter and made the phone call experienced a much bigger bump in happiness. Interestingly, the person who experienced the greatest bump was also the person who reported the lowest happiness score upon arrival at the lab.

The study got me thinking about relationships in general. What would happen if we made verbalizing gratitude a regular practice in our lives? How would our relationships with the people we love and the world around us begin to change? What would happen if companies put as much focus on expressing regular gratitude toward their employees and customers as they do on ROI and bottom lines?

We’d all be happier, apparently. You can’t argue with science.

Today I’m issuing a challenge to each of you reading this. (And I’m challenging myself to do the same.) In the words of wonderful Sara Bareilles, “Show me how big your brave is.” Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t be fearful. Be brave. Be happy. Be grateful.

Take a little time out to write a letter of gratitude to someone in your life today. Then pick up the phone. (And when you’re done be sure to loop back around and leave a comment below telling us how it went.)


This post first appeared on 

Dirty Hands, Better Lives: The Merits of Gardening

Two years ago, my family found ourselves crowded into a rented minivan, making our way across the country to bury my grandmother in her tiny hometown of Frederick, Oklahoma. At one point during the trip, we took a detour past the farm and home my great grandparents had called their own. As years of childhood memories came flooding back, flashing before my mother's eyes, I remember her making a comment on one thing in particular--a small plot of land where my great grandmother Mimi had once passed her days, caring for the irises. I've always enjoyed gardening, but as I've gotten older I've started thinking about my hobby from a different perspective. In a world that is so enamored with the latest technology, how can something as fundamentally basic as tending to a plot of land be such a source of immense joy?

Gardening is a connection to our food. When was the last time you really stopped to appreciate the painted edge of red sail lettuce or reveled in the divine shape of a radish freshly plucked from the ground? For me, it doesn't happen nearly enough. When I stop by the grocery after work, I'm usually in a rush. All too often, I find myself shoving hurried fistfuls of vegetables into plastic bags so I can get to the checkout as quickly as possible.

Modern convenience has driven a wedge between people and our food. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone--it's a regular topic of conversation, and a driver behind the "eat local" movement. And while local farms are wonderful, I feel there is an even greater benefit when we take "local" one step closer to home. It doesn't get any more local than your own backyard.

When you grow and harvest your own vegetables, it transforms your relationship with your food. You're no longer just chopping carrots or plucking basil; your sustenance becomes a direct result of your labor. The plants on your plate are no longer a food group; they're a testament to a relationship between ground and gardener. And that makes every bite taste a little bit better.

Gardening is a connection to ourselves.  Gardening is one of the few times I feel like I am able to truly disconnect from the world and reconnect with myself. When I'm wielding a trowel or elbow-deep in soil, I'm not thinking about twitter alerts or worrying about what I'm missing on facebook. I find that when I'm gardening I'm able to be truly present in the now. I relish each breath of fresh air. I appreciate the warmth of the sun on my skin and the whisper of the breeze. Gardening is my gateway and welcome escape back to the reality that really matters.

Real life, just like gardening, is gritty and dirty and unpredictable. In order to thrive and grow, our lives (and ourselves) require effort, energy, care and love. Real life won't be quantified in 140-character blips; it measures in seasons, sun-ups and sun-downs.  It doesn't matter how many people applaud what you do or say--or if they even like it all. Real life is a cycle of growth. It marches onward indifferently, regardless of whether you're a person, a green bean bush or a bumblebee.

It doesn't get much more real than that.

Gardening is a connection to God. For those who subscribe to the message behind the oldest story ever told, life and the world as we know it began in a garden a long, long time ago. The first sunrise stretched its arms wide, spreading its rays, for the first time, over an infinite bounty and everything the universe had to offer.

Maybe the affinity for gardening is something that has been hitchhiking--for centuries--on the deepest roots of our DNA. Perhaps it's an heirloom of a memory harkening back to that one first day. I prefer to think of it simply as something that brings me closer to God.

Try as we might, none of us carries on indefinitely. Like everything and everyone, we progress through a series of seasons. When our winter inevitably arrives, we return to the earth at rest.

Some churches come equipped with pews and a steeples. Others with shovels and trowels. Not every conversation with God happens in words. Some of us do our best prayer on our knees amongst the seeds and weeds. But in some way, each of us is a garden.

The Sidewalks of Chicago

chicago yellow balloons There is a place in Chicago, high above the streets I can tell you about. I've only been there once.

There is a place in Chicago, high above the streets I can tell you about. I won't tell you the name, because it's not important. But it's there, believe me. High above the hustle and bustle of a street named after a state, some of the most world's most talented musicians have met their destiny.

It is more treasure chest than shop. A landing pad where string instruments arrive like long-awaited foreign dignitaries with names like Francois and Annalinda. Some of them are named after artists or constellations, others named after lovers lost between the pages of the world's greatest unwritten love stories. Each one has a history. Many of them, if not most, are centuries old. One sat in the corner, listening to gossip at Marie Antoinette's ball. Another recalls the first breath of fresh air after years passed hiding in Amsterdam. The youngest is rumored to have a distant cousin that continued playing that night as the ship went down.

When you meet the dignitaries your instinct is to hush. You want to believe they will whisper their stories if you listen closely enough.

There is a sadness to the dignitaries. They have lost-and survived-everyone they ever loved and every hand that ever loved them in return. They have lived a series of lives, a constant reincarnation marked by the passing of time and the ticking of t he clock. Dutifully, they have sung again and again under aging hands, having lost as soon as they are found. They serve faithfully. They endure knowing others cannot. The dignitaries mourn; you can hear it if you listen, like holding a seashell to your ear. Every last breath, ever final farewell and ever swan song remains in the and of their scrolls and the spaces in between.

The people who buy the dignitaries spend a small fortune; at times, the price of a modest home. It seems unfathomable, but once you've heard them sing, you understand they're not just buying an instrument, they're liberating legends and wrapping their fingers around a legacy.
There are families that bring small children to meet the dignitaries. And though the children do not yet know it, their families have also brought them to meet their destinies. The children politely bow and greet the dignitaries. One by one, down the line, they raise their tiny fingers and tiny hands until they stand before The One that sings out in their native tongue. In a split second a path is cleared and a golden light shines just a little bit brighter through 48,000 crystals dangling above the sacred hall on 7th Avenue.There is a place in Chicago, high above the streets, I can tell you about. You would never find it were you not looking. It's behind a door with a brass handle and across a marble floor to an ancient elevator, the kind you only see in old movies. A black man with kind eyes will help you now. He'll pull aside a brass gate with strong hands before asking you which floor you're headed to. Tell him the 6th floor or maybe the 8th. It could have even been the 9th, I can't quite recall. Pass down the short hallway, then a right down the long corridor. If you hit the water fountain you've gone too far.To your right you will see a series of leaded glass windows. Some will be propped open. Step toward them, take a deep breath and see-really see. In the middle of this building in the middle of all this concrete, nine stories below there is a garden thriving in a city. Almost nobody knows. But now you do.Take a seat on the old wooden bench worn from years of visitors coming and going. Close your eyes. Somewhere in the distance the click of a woman's high heeled shoes comes nearer, then further away from you.It's quiet now and you are aware of the sound of your breathing and heartbeating high above a city that does not know of courtyard gardens or dignitaries or of your existence.

At the end of the hall there is an arched doorway. You can see it from where you sit. A single, short step leads up to an old wooden door. Light escapes through a crack between the floor and the base of the door. Beyond the door you hear voices, muffled but jovial. Then the click of a door beyond the door.

And then the singing begins.

You are hearing a familiar song for the first time. Every memory rushes back to you. Discovering toes. The comfort of being tucked into bed as a child. The infinite weightlessness of soaring through the air on a tire swing. The touch of your grandfather's hand patting your back. The smell of July at 10:30 p.m. The feel of a paintbrush in your hand. The taste of vanilla ice cream and South Carolina peaches. The exquisite sensation of slipping beneath the surface of the water in a swimming pool. The exact moment a ride on a bike with no training wheels finally makes sense. The electricity of the first kiss. The rush and rebellion of your first beer. The people you know and knew are laughing and smiling and waving as they go sailing by on a brilliantly colored carousel. Every dream, every hope, every wish is coming back to you now, like lady bugs

Open your eyes.

Stand up.

Turn away from the arched doorway. Walk down the long corridor. Take your time. Turn left down the short hallway. You'll find the elevator and your friend waiting to return you to the lobby from the 6th or the 8th or the 9th floor. He's quieter this time.

When the elevator stops and the doors open, step out and cross the marble floor. Pull open the door and step outside. Let the sunlight envelope you as you squint upward seeing only white light.

To your left a yellow taxi pauses at a stoplight as a child passes through the crosswalk leading a yellow balloon.

High above a bow is lifted from strings as a familiar life begins again on the sidewalks of Chicago.

Life, Death and a Dinner Table: A Family Tale of the Healing Power of Eating Together

I have a fairly large extended family. For the most part, our current clan originated in Wichita, Kansas, but through the power invested in marriages, divorces, job transfers and time, we have been strewn out across the country over the years. You'll now find pushpins in our family map everywhere from the Florida Keys to Honolulu, Austin to Wisconsin.

As a result of our geographic divergence, it makes it very difficult for all (or even many) of us to ever come together in the same place at the same time. Years go by and we don't see each other. The younger cousins eternally frozen in my mind as munchkins at the "little kids table" are now high school seniors and sophomores in college. The home I cast as the scene for all family memories hasn't been in our family for nearly a decade. This is just to say - things change, people get busy, time flies.

A year ago my grandmother passed away after a brief battle with cancer. Weddings and funerals. For better or worse, these are the things that  finally bring a modern family together. As each branch received the call, they made plans to descend upon the teeny, tiny town of Frederick, Oklahoma - my grandmother's childhood stomping ground. She had elected to be buried in Frederick beside her parents.

Frederick. How do I explain Frederick? It is perhaps best described as a blip town. A blip I fell very much in love with. Frederick is the kind of little place you pass through on a rural highway heading somewhere else. The last census put the population at under 4,000. I'm not sure what industry supports the economy there, I can only guess farming, and I remember reading somewhere that the median income in Frederick was well under $30,000.

In many ways Frederick feels like a land untouched by time. It struck me as the kind of place that could be described (and accurately so) as the heartbeat of America. A place steeped in family, God and the American dream. Unpretentious and hardworking. A welcome smile with a little grit under the fingernails. A land where people know their neighbors - and the value of a hard day's work. Frederick isn't relic as much as it is artifact. It isn't un-evolved, rather it's a place - and a lifestyle - unperturbed. From what I have gathered from my mother's accounts of visiting the sleepy tow in the 50s and 60s, not much has changed for Frederick the past half-century...and that's okay.

My family descended on Frederick like a bit of a storm. If you're going to stay in Frederick, your lodging options are limited to two motorlodge-type hotels on the outskirts of town. If you don't like the first, no worries. The other option is right next door. But if memory serves, one of the signs boasted that they were now offering wireless internet, so you may want to take that into consideration.

Our first afternoon in town, we took a driving tour around the city - and down memory lane. 40-some years later, my mother's memory was still able to trace its way back to the modest farmhouse my great-grandmother (Mimi) and great-grandfather (Homer) had owned together. It is the place where my grandmother grew up. My mother reminisced about the small patch of land my great-grandmother had tended, a vegetable and flower garden, and beyond it, the land my great-grandfather had tilled. She regaled us with stories of Mimi, the industrious wife of a farmer, snapping the necks of dinner chickens and plucking them clean. It was a stark contrast to the gentle, quiet, if not a bit frail, great-grandmother I remembered. In my mind, she was a soul better suited for gently cradling a cup of tea than slaughtering unsuspecting chickens. The image of her strong and fearless doing what had to be done gave me new perspective.

I come from a long line of strong, courageous females, it would seem.

The funeral went as funerals go. The chapel and cemetery set in a picturesque, rural area outside of town. It was a beautiful day, unseasonably warm, and cows were murmuring off in the distance. I suspect our unusual quietness was a bittersweet recognition of the irony that bidding a loved one farewell was the one thing that had a way of bringing the living back together.

After the casket had been laid, we mobilized the troops. We'd need lunch before everyone traveled back to their separate corners of the world. Having had our fill of Pizza Hut (and having no inclination to try Sonic), we ended up at a little local restaurant called The Bomber Inn.

My people are not a small people. At 5'10" I am one of the shorter cousins on my mother's side of the family. As we descended on The Bomber Inn, the staff and regulars looked at us incredulously, but only for a moment before shuffling chairs and tables to make it work. We crammed into booths, shared menus, stormed the single restroom. Clearly strangers, nobody poked or pried. They just made us feel welcome.

I don't recall what I ate that day. A grilled cheese or a chicken-fried steak, who can say for sure? I remember strange things from that afternoon. One of the waitresses asking my cousin to come into the kitchen to reach something on a high shelf. An older gentleman approaching my uncle to tell him he had a "mighty handsome family." More than that, I remember a feeling. A feeling of being acutely aware of the importance of eating together that day.

The truth is we cannot control the ticking of time. We don't get a say in when or how or where things come together or fall apart. We get busy, stressed, preoccupied, but at least a few times a day, life forces us to stop and eat. And we can choose to do that together.

Author Norman Kolpas once said, “Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort.” That afternoon, crammed in booths at The Bomber Inn, we weren't just eating lunch, we were celebrating a life. We weren’t just nourishing our bodies, we were nourishing our hearts and our spirits, too.

It's unlikely I will ever be in Frederick again. I doubt I'll be back at The Bomber Inn. But I often think of the kindness they showed us that day, and I hope they know that more than a meal, they gave us a rare and precious moment of togetherness in the heartbeat of America. It won't soon be forgotten.

Southern Housepitality: Become Your Own House Guest

Throughout my life I have noticed certain inalienable truths. You'll always find what you're looking for the day after you need it. The home projects you've been meaning to tackle (ugly countertops, hideous paint jobs, tragic flooring) are the things that get done just before you hand the keys over to the new owners and move out of your house. And when it comes to rolling out the royal treatment, most of us are adept at treating house guests with a sense of pampering that we fail to master for ourselves in our daily lives. No more, I say. It's time to be your own guest.

Southern hospitality is no joke. And while my first year of living in the south may not have sold me on chitterlings, sweet tea or turnip greens, the great lengths that southern women go to in order to care for their homes and create welcoming spaces for guests (whether they're staying an hour or a week) is near and dear to my heart.

If you're anything like me, hostessing a house guest is an opportunity to tap into your Pinterest-loving, friend-and-family-spoiling, Martha Stewart-idoling inner core. In the days leading up to a house guest's arrival, I find myself pressing linens and arranging fresh flowers while plotting flavored water recipes.

As is known to happen, after the guest leaves life returns to it's regularly-scheduled, hectic pace. Linens get tossed in the dryer instead of line-dried. Flowers bloom and wither on the vine. Water is water.

This is the picture of insanity. Over the course of a year, I probably entertain house guests for an average of 20 cumulative days. That's less than a month when all is said and done.  The other 11 months of the year, I live here. I know I'm not alone int this tendency. So what is it that compels us to care for our guests with such joy and enthusiasm during a brief stay, while we forgo the simple pleasure of a pampered life when it comes to our own daily lives?

No more, I say. It's time to become your own house guest. Below you will find ten of my favorite, standard houseguest niceties. I hope you will treat yourself to one (or eleven) of these simple pleasures. They truly can make the difference between just getting through the day and savoring the little moments of life.

Lavender Water

I have noticed that most lavender waters sold online and in stores are often QUITE expensive. (Put anything in a glass bottle with a french name and I guess it gives them free reign to jack up the price.) Here is  a great recipe for an at-home DIY lavender water that is just as lovely as any you will find in the store. Your local Whole Foods is a great resource for reasonably priced lavender essential oil.

Quality Hand Soap

Sure, you can grab a bottle of hand soap at the local dollar store. It will clean your hands and get the job done, but will it invigorate your spirit? For whatever reason (call me a soap snob), I have found that investing in a quality hand soap is one of those unexpected opportunities for a little pick-me-up moment of invigoration. Two of my favorites hand soaps are Mrs. Meyers in Lemon Verbana and J.R. Watkins in Lavender.

A Cream-Colored Quilt

I will admit, I am a bit quilt-obsessed. There are few things as quintessentially American as being wrapped in a quilt on an autumn night. It feels like being hugged by history.

I know some people love to get crazy and colorful with their bed linens, but I tend to be more of a traditionalist, favoring the crisp, clean look of white linens topped with a cream-colored quilt. Not only does it conjure up a sense of B&B luxury, a cream quilt goes with everything and gives me the freedom to change accessories in the room without having to invest in a new set of sheets.

Here's a beauty from Restoration Hardware

An Signature Scented Candle

Find a signature scented candle. Embrace it. Sprinkle it throughout your home. Breathe deeply throughout the day. Feel good about life. I can understand why some people balk at the thought of paying $30 for something you are going to burn, but I have noticed that Henri Bendel candles really do last forever. They claim to have a 60-hour burn time, and I have squeezed a year of fairly regular use (hour-long burning sessions) out of mine. Firewood is my signature scent. It's like having an eternal autumn on speed-dial.

Another favorite candle brand: Linea's Lights. Soy candles, cotton wicks, utterly amazing scents. I pray that they will bring Forest Fir back this Christmas, at which point I will be stocking up with enough to get me through the year.

Quality Stationary

Every woman needs a set (or two..or eighteen) of quality stationary on standby. My suggestion is:

  • a set of personalized, blank stationary for formal correspondence
  • a set of fun, blank stationary for casual correspondence
  • a set of quality thank you notes (because, let's be frank, most greeting cards sold on supermarket shelves are simply hideous)
If you are in the Asheville, NC area, be sure to check out The Baggie Goose. It is one of my favorite places in AVL, and quite possibly the planet. If you're not in the Asheville area, check out Crane & Co. for stunning stationary.

Reading Material

Last year I went a little nuts with Amazon's Christmas $5-$10 magazine special, and I must admit, opening the mailbox to discover a new glossy awaiting me still gives me a kid-on-Christmas thrill. Whether your vice is celebrity gossip, interior design or guns & ammo, go ahead and indulge in reading material for your bathtub bookshelf. Your secret is safe with me.

Line-dried Linens

Nothing smells more amazing that line-dried linens. And white linens bleached by the sun? Utter heaven. Do it. And while you're at it, check out

40 slotted clothespins for $2.30

A beautiful, signature tumbler

A special, pretty tumbler, all my own, makes me want to drink more water throughout the day. Or lemonade. Or mojito.

Yummy Bath Products

What pampering list would be complete without a little tub-side luxury? I realize the above photo looks like a jellyroll gone awry, but trust me on this. Lush has THE MOST amazing bath products ever. And while they're far from cheap, they are worth every penny. And the cost of shipping. And the wait time as they slowly travel down from Canada. Try the bubble bar in Karma. Bathtime will never be the same.

Note: I slice off half-dollar size pieces of the bubble bars to extend their life (and help my wallet.) While you won't get a bubble extravaganza from such a small piece, it is more than enough to scent the water, your skin and bathroom.

Fruit Infused Elixirs

I always get a kick out of the spa waiting area. Admid the zen waterfall and mood lighting, women chug down thimble-sized cupfuls of spa elixir (fruit infused water.) The possibilities here are endless. I like to pull from my garden. Play around until you find a combination that makes your taste buds cheer.

A few options...

  • Citrus fruits (lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit)
  • Berries (raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries)
  • Cucumber slices
  • Ginger
  • Herbs (basil, mint)

Now, go forth and spoil thyself. Happy living!



However you got here, here you are.

Tonight I was watching a documentary called "Enlighten Up!" It's about a skeptic's journey into the world of yoga. I am not a yoga person. I can't stand on my head. I have issues with spandex clothing. The thought of being trapped in a hot room with a bunch of sweaty, stinky strangers is pretty much my worst nightmare. I do, however, recognize a good piece of advice when I hear one. A quote from the almost-end of the movie, when our protagonist has a sit down chat with an Indian guru.

"You could have come by cycle, you could have come by car, you could have come by elephant, you could have come by foot. To reach here, there are so many directions. That depends on where you are at present. You are the most important person under the sun. What is east? From where does east begin? You are the center point. From you, this is east. For me, east would be different. That point could be west to you. You are the most important person under the sun. It's not important what you are doing. It's important why you are doing. You can prepare food for just consuming. You can prepare food for somebody you love. You can prepare food for The Lord. The action will be the same, physically, but inside it will be different. If you are forced to do cooking for somebody you don't like, you will do it, you will cook. But you won't enjoy it. Everything depends on you, hangs on you. So you should feel the importance of yourself. You are the most important person." 

A Letter to a Friend: The Joy of Dirty Dishes

[From a letter to a friend] I hate it when people leave, but I adore the silent hum and hush that fills the house after a happy evening with people you love. I spent my childhood sneaking peeks at my parents’ parties, trying to figure out where that magic comes from. To this day, I still haven’t been able to find the right word for it, but I know what it feels like. And I know how to spot the artifacts and fingerprints it leaves whispering in its wake. Empty wine bottles, corks here and there. Layers of plates stacked on top of one another. Plate, wadded up cocktail napkin, utensil. Plate, wadded up cocktail napkin, utensil.  Stacks of dirty dishes in the sink – and for just one night, nobody cares.

It fills the empty spaces between walls and floors, foundations and ceilings radiating with an almost palpable sense of aliveness.

It’s hard for me to imagine many other moments in life when I feel more acutely aware of the passing of time than in the hum and hush, alone at last, just me and the dirty dishes. These moments leave me feeling deeply blessed, wishing for a bigger dinner table…and more minutes, more years, more dinners, more cheers, more refills and popped corks and cups of coffee (I won’t drink) with dessert.

If I ever write a cookbook, I’m going to call it “The Joy of Dirty Dishes.”

And I will mean it.