Thursday, April 6, 2017

Simplicity: The Work Edition

It's weird to put this in writing, but I work from home as a freelance writer.  It's been going on for a while now.  At some point I became officially, or as official as things get in the world of freelance, employed by a company out of Canada who now puts money in my account every two weeks.  I also have several creative gigs I receive payment for.

Like the true digital native I am not, I am floored by this.  I write for a living, what I've always wanted to do.  Understand the money I make is not major by most people's standards, and I am only afforded the life of stay-at-home mom/writer because D has a job as an accountant.  But I was doing this for free and now people pay me, and I don't know any of them.  We've only met on the Internet.  It's awesome and weird and I keep waiting for it to all fall apart.

Every time my paycheck comes, this is how I look:


Courtesy of Memecreator.org


That's why when I started on my simplicity journey I really didn't think work was an area of my life that needed a makeover.  I'm doing what I love while still home, and I take pleasure in my job even on the days when everything else falls apart.

What I didn't understand is that in itself can be a trap.  So can not having an office or a place to retreat to work, not setting work hours, and feeling like working everyday is a good idea because I can.  I mean, I'm just a freelance writer who works part-time.  There's no way this could get out of control.

But sound rules and guidelines can create simplicity, and I needed some.  As the months wore on, I realized I wasn't taking any days off, I was working in bits and pieces all day and night, and I felt constantly frazzled even though I still enjoyed what I was doing.

I'd like to say these realizations inspired me to make a change, but they didn't.  What did was watching another woman, one of my editors, make a change.  She disappeared one weekend, not returning emails or approving submitted drafts.  Of course, I assumed she was only ignoring me and that I was being very quietly fired, my dream finally dying like I always suspected it would. 

Turns out, she messaged all of her writers the next Monday saying she had decided to take some time for herself, for her kids, uninterrupted time, time where the threat of work intruding just wasn't a factor.  She was refreshed and relaxed and has been taking weekends off ever since, I believe.

I suddenly thought, "Yeah, you know, that makes a lot of sense."  And I started doing the same thing.  Empowered women empower other women.

It's required a ton of planning and being intentional with every minute of my time on the days I do work.  I set aside big blocks of time when others in the house are the least likely to be affected, and then I have to push to meet deadlines.  The payoff has been worth it.  I'm producing more work than ever, and I have a consecutive 48 hours every week where work is not a factor.

It wasn't until I did this that I realized the importance of checking to make sure I am emotionally and mentally available as opposed to just physically.  When you're with your people all day like I am as a homeschooling mom, it's easy to think that grabbing a few minutes here and there to work is no big deal.  However, without hours set aside for when I would work and complete tasks, my deadlines hung over me all day long.   I thought about them, logged onto the computer to work on bits and pieces, and stayed physically present while not being very mentally in tune with those around me.

Setting up my simple dos and and don'ts for work has worked wonders. It's allowed me to be productive, to rest, and to offer myself fully to others in a way I wasn't before.

God rested, not because He needed to but because He was setting an example.  There is simplicity in Sabbath, no matter when we do it. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

March Book List

March was a long, lovely month for reading.

Fiction

Behind Her Eyes: by Sarah Pinborough
This suspense thriller takes the man-cheating-on-wife story and gives it an extremely unexpected twist that will leave readers shocked when the last page is turned.  When Louise kisses David at a bar, she doesn't know he is her new boss or that he is married.  His wife, Adele, suddenly pops into Louise's life, and as much as she knows it's not a good idea, Louise continues her relationship with David and her friendship with Adele, not letting either one know about her connection to the other.

However, there is more to the story than Louise knows as she attempts to dissect the marriage she inserted herself into.  Be warned with this one, willingly suspending disbelief is necessary, but Pinborough does a good enough job of keeping readers intrigued that it feels natural to just go with it.  The ending is trippy and twisted, and readers will love it or hate it depending on their preferences when reading. 

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Marilyn Lee just wants her favorite child, Lydia, to be anything but ordinary.  James, her father, wants her to blend in in a way he, a Chinese-American, feels he never could.  But when Lydia goes missing, those dreams disappear as the entire Lee family is left to sort out the truths in their family.

I can't praise this one enough.  Ng writes about family indescribably well, and the way she covers the dynamics between Marilyn and James and the sibling dynamic between all three Lee children is flawless.  I rushed to the end of this one since there was an element of suspense, but I was devastated when it was over because I didn't want to put it down.  

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
There were a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong about this book.  On the positive side, Tom Barren should be a character who is easy to hate, but Mastai writes him generously and makes readers root for him.  Also, the premise of this book is fascinating.  Tom lives, or lived, in a 2016 where we had flying cars, technology to fix everything, and world peace.  That is, until he hopped in his dad's time machine and destroyed it all, landing him back in what is our real world. 

The parts I wasn't crazy about were the technobabble(if I'm reading a book about time travel, I'm okay just trusting that it's happening.  I'm not going to understand if you try to explain it to me anyway) and the parts closest to the end where it felt like the book wasn't staying tight and was trying to accomplish too much. 

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Engel doesn't play around.  She drops a truth bomb about her characters' lives in the first 30 pages of the book and never looks back.  She can do that because the rest of the book is so naturally suspenseful and well written that she doesn't have to drag the reader along.  Despite the disturbing things going on in the lives of her characters, readers will want to find out more about the Roanoke girls.

Lane becomes friends with her cousin, Allegra, when she stays with her grandparents one summer after her mother's death.  Years later, when Allegra is missing, Lane goes back to Kansas to try to find out what happened to Allegra in the midst of the twisted home she was raised in.

Dark, disturbing, and well written, The Roanoke Girls is a good read for those who like suspense and psychological thrillers.  

Harmless Like You by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Jay needs to find the mother who abandoned him when he was two years-old.  He has recently lost his father and is struggling with the changes in his own marriage and his lack of feeling for the child he and his wife just had.  His story is told along with that of Yuki, his mother. 

We follow Yuki, an aspiring artist in New York who decides not to go back to Japan with her family, from the time she is sixteen until she makes the fateful decision to leave her only son.  Even though we know the decision she ultimately makes, it's interesting to follow her to that choice, feeling sympathy for her as she endures a violent relationship and tries to find a place in the world with so much fighting against her. 


Non-Fiction

The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking
I've been fairly obsessed with hygge since it perfectly encompasses my loves of simplicity, minimalism, and conscious living.  Hygge, pronounced hoo-ga, is a Danish concept that basically means that feeling of comfort, warmth, and contentment we've all experienced but might not know to name. 

The reason hygge is getting so much attention lately is that Denmark consistently ranks in the top three for happiest countries in the world.  Many researchers want to know why, and they pretty much agree that the Danes' obsessive focus on having hygge in their lives is it. 

Wiking's book is fun, illustrated, and a super fast read.  He lists things that are considered hygge, like candles, hot chocolate, and blankets, while also discussing things that aren't considered hygge by Danes, like social media.  He dives into trying to explain how a country with extremely high taxes and freezing, dark weather for a good portion of the year manages to stay so happy.  I loved this book and finished it in a day!

The Book of Hygge: The Danish Art of Contentment, Comfort, and Connection by Louisa Thomsen Brits

While readers may nod their heads and giggle through Wiking's fast hygge read, Brits' is more like sinking in with a cup of tea and slowly devouring each chapter, taking time to meditate on what was read before moving to the next page. 

Brits says many of the same things Wiking does, like that hygge is about relationships, a feeling of security, and conscious living, but her approach is to dig deeper into what makes hygge, such as using all five senses and creating boundaries between our worlds and experiences. 

I will read this one again.  The first time I read it, I spent most of my reading time in a recliner next to the screen door listening to the kids play while drinking coffee.  I was also wrapped up in a blanket.  It was a very hygge experience. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Simplicity: The Parenting Edition

When you have a large family and one person falls ill, you just wait for everyone to crash like dominoes until the germs run through the entirety of the house.  That occurred, but it took nine days.

It sounds crazy, but cancelling every play date and avoiding public places so we wouldn't share our germs actually turned into a great time to focus on simplicity in parenting.  It led to realizing that being around my kids near constantly ensures everything in quantity but nothing in quality if I don't work at it. 

Here are some simple lessons I learned during our stomach virus time:

Big kids always need to be rocked.  They will reveal everything in the world to you in a recliner with your arms around them.

Listening is hard but amazing.  I now know more about the video games Sam enjoys than I ever wanted to, but being receptive to hearing about his obsessive interest made him talk about deeper questions he had, something that isn't always easy for him.

A few kind words are everything, even if it's just telling one of the three year olds, "Thanks for at least aiming for the toilet that time. I'm proud of you."

We love our play dates, our friendships, our familiar routine, but slow is not a bad pace for us, even when everyone is well.  I have to remind myself constantly that that's okay, it's actually what D and I work for.  We want meaningful, not just a full schedule.  We want intentional, not busy.  Sickness is always the reset button that helps me assess whether we are living out our values or just going through the motions, trudging through the day.  The latter is not my definition of simplicity.

We make time for what's important, and important to me always equals deeper intimacy and communication, even though I am a lover of checking items off the to-do list.  It's about balance, but I'm going to swing in favor of less with more depth than more but shallow every time.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

February Book List

I read some very rich books this month.  The memoirs I devoured were two of my favorite memoirs ever, and reading my first book by Maggie O'Farrell was an indescribable pleasure. 

Fiction

This Must be the Place by Maggie O'Farrell:  Adrift from his children in the states, Daniel has a new family in Ireland but is called back to America for an emergency.  When it's time for making his way back to Ireland and back to his ex-movie star wife who fled her celebrity life years before, the journey proves difficult as Daniel grapples with memories and mistakes from his past that have the potential to sink his future.

There aren't words to describe how affected I was by this book.  I still think about it daily, and O'Farrell caused me to care about each of these character's fates to a point where I feel like they are actually real people walking around somewhere in the world.  Not overly sentimental but still heartbreaking at times, this book still manages to be funny.  I plan on reading more of O'Farrell's books because This Must be the Place made me a forever fan.

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge:  The Freemans move to the Toneybee Institute to teach Charlie, a chimp, how to use sign language.  They are immersed in this experiment, a black family in the early 1990s, and are supposed to treat Charlie like a member of the family.  However, the Toneybee Institute has a questionable past, and when that is brought to light through flashbacks and discovery, the entire situation starts coming apart at the seams.

Greenidge does a wonderful job of creating a story that encompasses large themes, mainly race, while also making the core of the book about family, betrayal, and what happens when we don't know how to use the languages we know to properly communicate the truth to each other. 

We Are Unprepared by Meg Little Riley:  I wasn't overly crazy about the writing in this one, probably because I read it during a month when I was drowning in elegant, precise words.  However, I enjoyed the story of a couple who move from their lives in New York to live more organically in Vermont.  Their plans go awry when a super storm is predicted to change the landscape of the planet for good.

Riley did a good job of showing how people break into factions and fear is just as dangerous as anything Mother Nature can unleash.  She also presents a scary view of the possibilities if the climate continues to change and all the predicted destruction occurs.

Memoir

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi:  Paul Kalanithi planned his career as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist meticulously before being interrupted by cancer at the age of 36.  Suddenly unaware of how long he had left to live, Kalanithi had a chance to further analyze a question that had haunted him all of his life:  what do we live for, and what makes it worthwhile?

This book is beautiful, almost poetic, but it isn't overly sentimental.  Kalanithi shares his experience of going from a doctor to a patient and from having his whole life planned out to not knowing if he would be alive months down the road.  The wisdom he gleaned from the experience is valuable to us and will be part of Kalanithi's legacy now that he's gone.

I'm Supposed to Protect You From All This by Nadja Spiegelman:  Spiegelman is the daughter of Art  Spiegelman, the award-winning author of Maus, a graphic novel about his parents time in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.  His daughter, Nadja, is talented in her own right, and her debut book broke my heart and made me reflect on the complicated relationships we often have with the women in our families.

Spiegelman interviewed her mother Francoise Mouly, a famous editor and publisher who has worked for The New Yorker, about her life, and what she found helped shape their relationship and also led her back to her grandmother, who told sometimes contradictory stories to those that Francoise shared.

This entire narrative unfolds beautifully under the careful hands of the author, and it makes the reader wonder about memories, perceptions, and the lies we tell ourselves to continue to connect with others.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Little More About Those Pops

Update:  A day after I posted this piece, I heard from the culinary development representative again.  Her news is good for the Dallas/Fort Worth area.  The DFW Steel City Pop locations use chocolate from Unrefined Bakery, a 100% gluten-free establishment that is owned by a mother/daughter team who have Celiac.  However, locations in Houston, Alabama, and Kentucky are still at risk due to the use of Ghirardelli cocoa powder in some of their products.  
 
I posted a statement to Facebook yesterday about my disappointment in Steel City Pops because of their refusal to deal with ingredients that might contain gluten while still advertising their food as gluten-free.  I stand by my concern, but I wanted to add a bit to that since hearing from their culinary development representative this morning. Here's the breakdown:

Their representative from Ghirardelli is giving them a completely different story than the person I was in contact with.  Here's the statement I received from Ghirardelli about an ingredient Steel City Pops uses:

At this time our products are not certified as being gluten free, the FDA requires products to be tested to confirm that gluten level is below 20ppm. Currently Ghirardelli products are not tested to this requirement and therefore we cannot make any gluten free claims for our products, production lines or manufacturing facilities. If a Ghirardelli product contains gluten it will be noted in the ingredients. 

What this means is that Gharardelli does not require that their products meet the lowest possible standard for a gluten-free designation.  Thankfully, after years of being considered an enemy to the Celiac community due to their lack of transparency, they are finally giving a straight answer and saying they just aren't taking the extra step to guarantee anything.  I can at least respect the honesty. 

However, Steel City Pops' Ghirardelli representative tells a different story and says the company is on the verge of being certified gluten-free, they just don't want to pay for the designation.  Given the company's past and my exchange with a Ghirardelli rep. yesterday, I don't believe it.  

Steel City Pops is looking to change to a company who provides certified gluten-free, organic cocoa powder, but they haven't yet and I don't know when they will.  For us, that means this dessert destination is out.

All this to say I can't recommend this place to those with severe gluten-intolerance or Celiac, but I do commend the company for taking my concerns seriously and sending my emails up the chain of command until I was able to have an exchange with someone who seemed to moderately understand why I was concerned.  That is something, and I will take it.  

I also want to warn the Celiac community that I believe issues like this are going to become more prevalent for a couple of reasons:  number one, we're trending.  To eat gluten-free now is to be the cool kid at the lunch table, but that means many restaurants and manufacturers are cashing in as opposed to actually checking out how to help those who actually need this diet to live.  

Number two, governmental standards are going down the tube.  This is not completely new since the last administration seemed to owe a large portion of their souls to Monsanto, but I fear in this current climate where making money is the primary consideration for those in office, things are going to get very hard for those of us who need to verify ingredients in food or medication.  

To survive, research and question more than ever.  Eat at home when you can.  Eat whole foods that are less in question.  Eat certified GF.  Be careful. 

Sunday, February 5, 2017

What Simple Looked Like in January

The beginning of this year was a challenge to the simple mantra, I'm not going to lie.  I've spent much of the last several months feeling displaced in many areas of life, such as politically, spiritually, and in a sense in community because I like being a hermit and want to run at signs of conflict, and I don't know if you've popped your head outside the door or logged onto a social media account lately, but conflict abounds.  Plus, I am an anomaly whose views do not fit in any one group, a mutt of sorts, so I've watched people take up pitch forks and just waited to see which direction they were going to hit me from. 

This is how I walked into my year of simple.

What I have tried to do this month is to boil life down to what I want to accomplish and how I get there cutting out all of the BS along the way.  Try this if you want a sure fire way to see how full your life is of BS.

Here's what has helped me make my way back to the simple this month:

Uno: Yep, the kids' card game has done wonders for simple in this house.  Everyone feeling cranky and stressed?  Uno.  Everyone leaning too much on junk food and technology?  Uno.  Too cold to go outside without your six year-old suffering frost bit because he won't wear pants? Uno.

Kodaline's Album, In a Perfect World:  Music centers me, and one of the things that scares me most about losing my hearing is losing my memories.  They are tied up in song and the sounds of people laughing.

This album is beautiful and haunting and never fails to help me center and release tension.

Picnics:  These are not elaborate picnics with an actual basket and a trek to the woods.  We picnic in the backyard.  We picnic in the living room.  It's a great way to fellowship together that feels exotic because we don't do it every day.

Coffee:  Do I really need to explain this?

Story Time:  I recommend the following books for stellar story time: The Day the Crayons Quit, The Day the Crayons Came Home, Naked (it's a children's book, I promise), and Leo, the Terrible Monster.  They reset us every time.


Writing:  Writing is a great way for me to avoid therapy.

Actions Over Words: I am opting for actions over words, which isn't to say I won't use words, but they will be in putting out there what I think is important and not arguing with people who don't agree. I'm not going to try to convince other people, but I am going to protest.  My kids already know how to call their representatives, so I'm teaching action as well as practicing it.

Prayer:  If I love someone, I pray for them.  If I don't, I begrudgingly throw their name out there and let God deal with me.  It works either way, and it never fails to calm me and give me purpose.

Simple is not easy, but I think it's going to be worth it. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

January 2017 Book List

Memoir
Sex Object by Jessica Valenti:  I cannot say this book was enjoyable, but I still appreciated Valenti's story and the reason she felt it necessary to share.  In a world where people criticized Valenti for the title of her book, proclaiming she wasn't attractive enough to be a sex object, we need to remember that being called an object isn't a compliment.  That was Valenti's point.

The current climate of boys will be boys makes Valenti's story of leaving college due to harassment about her sex life even  more important.  The boy who targeted her after their break up, of course, was not vilified for the sex they had.

This book is not one of hope.  Sharing decades worth of family trauma as it relates to women being treated like objects, Valenti doesn't hold back.

Fiction
News of the World by Paulette Jiles:  News of the World landed at number one on the Book Pages list for this year, so I had to read it.  I don't miss their numbers ones, and I've never been disappointed.

News of the World was no exception.  Taking place in Texas in the 1800s, this book follows Captain Kidd as he takes news from one Texas town to another, reading from the papers to the people about all that is going on in the great, big world.  When he is tasked with returning a young girl, Johanna, who was taken by Kiowa raiders four years early, to her home in San Antonio, he has to avoid the law, the Kiowa's who want her back, and other malicious people who don't have Johanna's best interest at heart.

This book is tender and hopeful, though at certain points I wanted to hide for fear of what was going to happen to these two unforgettable characters.  I would have never grabbed this one on my own, but I'm glad it was on the list because I can't imagine not knowing this beautiful story.

Tomorrow Will Be Different by Maria Semple:  This was on my Book Page List for the year, and it was very enjoyable.  The protagonist daily makes a list of how her day is going to be different, better, more grown up, and she regularly fails to meet her own goals.  As the story unfolds, we are permitted flashbacks that allow us to see her in a different light.

Semple's writing is hilarious and real, and she doesn't spare her protagonists close examination of their own faults that created the mess they are living in.  The characters are memorable and the story relevant.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple:  I will read a great  book by an author and then vow to read more of their work, but then I don't.  I decided to break that pattern by following up Today Will Be Different with Semple's previous New York Times bestseller, and I was not disappointed.  In fact, I like Where'd You Go, Bernadette even better.

Told through emails, memos, and narrative, we learn about Bernadette, a former architect who is now just trying to avoid people while living in Seattle with her husband and daughter.  The moms at her daughter's private school, or the gnats as she calls them, make it hard, and just like in Today Will Be Different, we learn more about the past that led Bernadette to where she is through flashbacks.  When Bernadette disappears, the past becomes extremely important for tracking her down.

This book is hilarious and delightful.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett:   The reader is warned from the beginning that this is not going to be a carefree, upbeat ride.  From the opening pages of this story, which is told by alternating narrators, we know that tragedy will occur in some way.  The story then takes us back to how this family started and to how they landed where they are.

Margaret decides, even after her fiance suffers from a depression so deep he has to be hospitalized, to marry him and have a family.  Their three children then carry on the story of their generation, with troubled oldest child Michael at the center of everyone's concern.

The writing is flawless, the story heartbreaking but honest and at times humorous. Haslett knows families, and my breath was stolen away when, using Margaret's voice, he described being a mother as hearing and feeling but not often actually seeing our children, a truth most any mother can attest to.  This one is worth the read and the heartbreak.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood:  I maybe picked the wrong time in life to read Atwood's book about a dystopian environment where women are basically used for parts by a government masquerading as a religious entity, or maybe it was the perfect time.  Either way, this book that was written decades ago gave me the creeps and kept me hooked until the last page.

Offred is a handmaid who is assigned to a commander and his wife to try to conceive a child for them.  She has a limited amount of chances before she is deemed worthless, and the clock is ticking.  As Offred remembers her life before this world emerged, she also learns of a resistance growing in the heart of Gilead.

I may be one of the last to pick this one up, but if anyone else hasn't read it, grab it now.  It's disturbing but wonderful.

Transit by Rachel Cusk:  This book is a sequel of sorts to Outline, a beautiful piece of literature that I read and loved.  The narrator continues giving us snippets of her life in transition as she moves back to London with her young sons after a divorce.

This novel is not what most people expect when they think of telling a story.  Certain details are left completely out, and the story is more a series of very deep conversations that cut to the bone of meaning than a strict, detailed narrative.  Cusk's writing is breathtaking, and I want to sit at a table with people and dive to the heart of conversations the way her characters do. 

Non-Fiction
Jesus Without Borders by Chad Gibbs:  I want to see more of Gibb's hilarious, relevant writing on Christianity in the world because he is spot-on without being preachy, serious and yet hopeful.

Gibbs grew up in Alabama and decided he wanted to see what Christianity looked like in other countries around the world.  With an advance from Zondervan and travel hacking tricks, he went to 12 different countries, worshiped with other believers, and asked what they thought about American Christianity.  The answers and experiences were eye opening for Gibbs and for me as a reader.

As our country delves further into a dangerous trend towards nationalism and forgets that we do not have a monopoly on Christianity or what it looks like in real life, Gibb's book comes along and shows what following Jesus looks like in other cultures.  It should make us question our Christianity wrapped up in an American flag and our allegiance to politics over the actual words of God.