Broccoli cheddar and a book for the soul

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There’s nothing like treating yourself to lunch.

I stopped for a while, mostly when I went full-force on Weight Watchers and knew that dining out each day was a surefire way to go over my daily points allowance. Lunches out went from commonplace status to special treat — and that wasn’t a bad thing! Not for my wallet, my waistline, my psyche.

When I stopped worrying about lunches every day, I became more productive at work and in my personal life. The time I once used to read over soup at Panera became a chance to run errands, get gas, swing by the grocery store for random items. All those little, annoying tasks we must fit in somewhere.

But I missed those relaxing breaks. A chance to step away from the desk and into the sunshine; an opportunity to reunite with characters, eat a hot meal and gather my thoughts. I don’t mind eating alone . . . it’s one of my favorite things to do, actually. And where I tend to go on my breaks, I’m just one of many sitting solo.

I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time on Stephanie Perkins’ Isla and the Happily Ever After, a library book I’ve already renewed and will probably have to check out for a third time to make it through. It’s my “lunch read,” and I usually start debating where to take it that day by late morning.

Though I’m still following the basic tenets of Weight Watchers, I have eased up. I have not been tracking, but I feel okay about that. I’ve given myself permission to relax my strict eating — especially as dealing with recent health issues have meant I’m eating only what I can stomach and no more, no less. If that’s just a slice of bread? So be it. I’m not so far down the rabbit hole I can’t recognize that, first and foremost, I need to take care of myself.

Body and mind.

And that’s where the lunches can come in. As work and daily life can get stressful, I’ve returned to treating myself to meals out a few times a week — when I feel the pull to get up and out, soaking up the colors of fall and enjoying the last few warm days before the cold comes bustling in. Sometimes I meet my dad or my sister, but I often head out alone. Lately, with Isla.

And it’s good. Good for the soul.

Almost as good as Panera’s broccoli cheddar soup, you know.


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Taming the clutter (and piles)

Kitchen table

It’s never this clean.


Piles are my downfall.

I’m really bad about them. Truly. Piles of mail, shoes, errant candy plucked from my purse — things that have homes, maybe, but somehow wind up on the coffee table or kitchen counter or in a mass near the door.

Living at home until I was 28, I grew quite used to piling up my things in one edge or other of my bedroom — not because I didn’t have free reign of the house but, you know, it was my parents’ house. I spread beyond the four corners of my own space sometimes, but for the most part? Everything was there. There in my childhood bedroom.

If it sounds crazy for a woman in her late twenties to have all her worldly goods in one cramped space, it sort of was. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure how I managed to cram so much stuff in there. If you’re thinking this gave me an appreciation for minimalism and making do with less, well . . . it’s a beautiful thought! But no. No. Though not a pack rat, I do like my things.

Too much, sometimes.

As I’ve been feeling under the weather recently, Spence has been caring for me — and the house has suffered. I mean, it’s not a pig sty, but let’s just say it’s not “company ready” — a condition I aim to be in about 80 percent of the time. I don’t want to be the type of person that panics if friends and family say they’re dropping by, you know? I just want to relax, say “The door is always open!” and actually mean it.

It’s a goal, anyway.

I felt better today. Really better. Rested, alert, awake — for the first time in ages. If I play my cards right, I usually have an extra 15 minutes in the morning between getting showered, dressed, etc. and actually having to run out the door. I usually reserve that time for mindlessly watching television, reading emails or, occasionally, flipping absently through a magazine. Rarely is it used for anything productive.

Today, I felt the burn.

In less than 15 minutes, I raced through projects that had been bugging me for days, weeks: a pile of mail on the kitchen counter; a mountain of clean clothing that needed to be hung in the closet; a disastrous heap of shoes I’d shucked near the door.

It’s nothing momentous. Nothing auspicious. But it felt so good to have the energy — and the presence of mind — to want to do something, and when I was finished? Well. I marched off to work with a light, uncluttered heart.

Though I’ll be the first one to admit I’m prone to laziness, I’m really trying to focus on how good it felt to get a few simple, nagging things accomplished and use that momentum to carry me forward into other parts of the house. Every day. My husband is great about many things — and does just as much, if not more, around our place — but, you know . . . there are certain aspects of clutter I’m more likely to notice than he is.

Marriage. Two people makin’ it work.

Hoping this continues, I can hold myself together — and only good things are afoot.

And if nothing else, well . . . the piles are gone. For today.

(Also, look: I wrote a blog post! A truly productive morning, indeed. Hi!)


A fall Friday

Pumpkin

Despite my static-filled silence, friends, I promise I’m a busy little bee back here in my solitude. Last weekend featured a surprise leopard-themed 75th birthday party for my grandma, who seemed shocked indeed, as well as a visit to one of our favorite local parks. Though the leaves weren’t too impressive, it was nice to walk around and soak up a little nature before winter gets here.

Winter. I shudder.

Saturday will be another fun family day as we celebrate a dear cousin’s baby shower, and I am determined — determined, I tell you! — to get through some of the remaining boxes currently littering our office and basement. One of the spare rooms upstairs has also become a dumping ground for my childhood memorabilia, and I have the sinking suspicion I should, like, do something about that.

I don’t know.

The house has gotten away from me. We stopped by our condo this week to just check things over (still looking for a renter/buyer, God help us), and I swear I wanted to fold myself up into one of its rooms and stay there. I love the house, don’t get me wrong — it’s amazing, and it’s ours — but the condo was cozy and warm. Comfortable. Familiar.

In many ways, I still feel like a kid who somehow wormed her way into owning property . . . it doesn’t seem conceivable that Spencer and I are actual adults with actual bills and an actual house, as opposed to the cute apartment we shared. I feel completely old enough to have an apartment, but a three-story structure I’m responsible for maintaining? All those toilets for the cleaning?

Yeah. No.

But I won’t dwell on that. I certainly have no regrets, and our house is our house. As much as I love the rooms and space and the library, though, sometimes I do get wistful for our first place. I only lived there myself eight months, but Spence was there for years — and we have so, so many memories there.

But, you know. Now I’m depressing myself.


Pumpkin II


Let’s talk about my favorite subject: food! I’ve been prowling Pinterest like a champ, mostly because I totally cheated on Halloween and have just gone straight to Thanksgiving. I have approximately 10 million fall-inspired recipes I want to try, but I won’t torture guests with an exclusively pumpkin buffet. Though we’re still ironing out the details, I believe we’ll be hosting the holiday meal this year — a first! — and I’m not nervous so much as fearful of breaking tradition. Thanksgiving has always been at my grandparents’ house, but sometimes change can be a good thing?

I’m going with that.

Focusing on food gives me purpose. Direction. Hunger. When I get a little antsy, I think about pumpkin cornbread and cheesy artichoke pumpkin dip and frosted apple blondies.

All better.

Happy weekend, friends!


Well, hi

Fall color

I hate to break the fourth wall and go all “sorry I haven’t been blogging,” but sorry I haven’t been blogging. Between getting sick last week, battling through general exhaustion and a few grueling projects at work, my head has been all over the place and, quite honestly, I’m just trying to muddle through.

That sounded a little more depressing than I intended. Everything is okay! I am good! But I’m tired and sort of boring right now, though I anticipate having some fun stories to share with you soon. And probably some pictures . . . once I get my camera batteries charged again. I’m slacking.

How are the leaves where you are? Because here, friends, they’re kind of sucking. Most of the trees behind the house have uniformly shed their leaves without much color change at all, leaving us with all of the yard work and none of the beauty. Which is pretty terrible, actually. I’m still waiting for “real” fall to begin . . . it’s been muggy, stormy and weird. I need my autumn breezes.

So, yes — going to try and get my act together. I miss you guys. I miss having mildly entertaining and/or whacky things to talk about. I’m optimistic — cautiously? — that I’ll get back into the groove soon.

Until then, I’ll be on the couch.


Book chat: ‘Seven Letters from Paris’ by Samantha Verant

Seven Letters from ParisTwenty years after they shared one fateful weekend in Paris, Samantha and Jean-Luc are separated by an ocean and wealth of varying experiences. Samantha herself is in a rut — 40 and jobless, staring down an impending divorce, living back with her parents as she nervously tackles her debt.

When Sam stumbles upon a series of letters Jean-Luc sent after she returned to college in America, the passion and connection they shared decades ago comes flooding back to her. She realizes she hasn’t felt that way before or since — but never actually responded to her French Romeo. At all.

Though she believes her apology comes a little too late, she’s able to find Jean-Luc online and sends him the answer she feels he was owed in the ’80s by way of a blog. Their emails lead to phone calls, and calls expand to talk of visiting in person. Is she crazy to leave California for France to see if the connection they once shared has stood the test of time?

Maybe. But she has nothing to lose, and all the world to gain.

Samantha Verant’s memoir Seven Letters from Paris is the romantic, entertaining story of how she reconnected with the love of her life when the odds certainly seemed stacked against them. Their story is an improbable one: a young American woman and French rocket scientist randomly meet at a cafe when Sam and a friend visit Paris in the late ’80s. After they share a weekend exploring the city, Jean-Luc falls completely in love . . . and Samantha disappears. He sends seven letters to her address at an American university but never hears from her again.

Until, one day, he does.

I’ll just come out and say that I’m a huge fan of serendipity. I love stories that connect lovers who, by all logic, should not have found one another; I adore tales of fate stepping in to guide the lives of unlikely people. Sam and Jean-Luc live an ocean and a continent apart — and the idea that they could randomly meet on a sidewalk, lose touch and find each other again after 20 years, several marriages, children and so on was nothing short of amazing.

Where the story could have become schmaltzy and boring, Samantha’s self-deprecating humor and humble roots were endearing and kept me rooting for her from start to finish. As she sheds her dog-walking skin back in California and takes a chance on visiting Jean-Luc, I was breathless with anticipation of their meeting once again. Ah, true love.

Are Jean-Luc’s overtures a bit over-the-top? Sure. But as Sam points out often, the standard for romance in France is, um, a bit different than what we might expect of courtship here in the U.S. She is wooed quite thoroughly by her older scientist — and who could blame her? I mean, really.

A quick and engaging read, Seven Letters from Paris  was just the sort of story I needed to help break me out of my reading slump. I loved Sam and Jean-Luc — and especially loved them together. I’ve heard rumors that we may get a follow-up on their new life together in France (not a spoiler!) . . . I’ll just be over here with my coffee and macaron, waiting.


4 out of 5

Pub: October 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Advance copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Book chat: ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez

Book of Unknown AmericansIntense. Riveting. Heartbreaking.

Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans had me feeling nearly every emotion under the sun — especially as this tale of devotion and hope unraveled and left me with an ache in my stomach, a painful desire to undo what was done. To go back in time, helping to repair it — bit by bit, blow by blow.

Following the lives of several immigrant families, Henriquez’s tale focuses on the Toros and Riveras who rent apartments from the same Delaware complex. Mayor Toro falls in love with Maribel, a fellow teen, nearly at first glance — but can tell the Riveras harbor secrets. Everyone who comes to America is searching for something, reaching for something, but for this family? It’s something more. It’s a running-away, too.

As the Toros attempt to help acclimate Alma, Arturo and Maribel, tense relations with neighbors strain further. Mayor wants nothing more than to swoop in and protect Maribel, erasing all the pain etched on her face, but some forces are beyond their control.

It’s been a while since I sank into some good literary fiction. Honestly, with the chaos of the last year or so, I’ve favored neutral works or memoirs that may not demand as much from me as a reader. But it’s not fair to categorize The Book of Unknown Americans as a “tough read” — because in Henriquez’s hands, the tale digests so easily.

It’s impossible not to feel for Alma and Arturo, Maribel’s parents; as they flee their old life in Mexico, wanting to help and protect their injured daughter, they must abandon everything they know that is safe and familiar. The early moments the Riveras share at their dingy, anonymous apartment were heartbreaking. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it must be like, leaving behind a home filled with everything you love, everything you’ve built. And to come to a new country and community that may be hostile toward you — called an “outsider,” a foreigner, or worse — is gut-wrenching.

But Alma and Arturo are tenacious. They care. They try. Desperately wanting Maribel’s condition to improve, they tolerate the time she spends with Mayor and encourage her to form new relationships. Mayor was an interesting character in that he shares some of the Riveras’ experiences, but his own life in America is different. I didn’t bond with him the way I did with the Riveras, but I certainly felt with and for him throughout the novel.

Peppered between the unfolding saga of the two families are the stories of many more men and women, also immigrants who have arrived in the United States for one reason or another — and their personal narrations, sometimes only a few pages long, break up the ongoing narrative. I loved these glimpses into the lives of neighbors, coworkers and new friends. I recognized how responsible they felt for each other — even though they may have all arrived in the country as strangers. They’re Americans now.

This isn’t a love story, but it is a love story. From the blush of early love between Mayor and Maribel to the many sacrifices parents make for their children, the novel is a testimony to devotion and wanting more.

Though the subject matter is often difficult, the pay-off is so great. Henriquez spins a powerful tale filled with memorable characters, heartbreaking narratives and incredible depth. By the time I finished The Book of Unknown Americans, I felt nearly breathless; it was so intense, so moving, that I felt I’d barely come up for air. Highly recommend.


4.5 out of 5

Pub: June 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Advance copy provided by publisher for review consideration


Mum’s the word

Field of mums

This field of mums is on a popular route in Southern Maryland — a corridor that takes you through a neighboring county, a road I’ve driven countless times.

Each October, we pass by in a blur of headlights and coffee headed for an early-morning flea market or photography club meeting — times we are rushed rushed and can’t stop to admire them. And they’re certainly worthy of admiration.

Spencer and I were out and about on Saturday with a few minutes to spare, and I realized this is the first year we have a home of our own — a place with a porch, an entrance, outdoor space — where said mums could be placed. We’ve stopped to photograph the field in previous years with my mom, but never taken anything home.

It was time.

After debating the merits of various colors, we eventually settled on two fat orange ones. I felt like a real homeowner out there, pacing the dusty paths, using flag markers to signal the staff who came to dig up our favorites. Others were choosing four, five, eight, but we figured a pair would suit us fine.

Mums

They make quite a statement on our porch — especially when combined with the trio of pumpkins we picked up at the farmers’ market, probably one of the last of the season. If I’ve dreamed about anything in homeownership, it’s probably decorating for autumn . . . and it’s here!

And then it will be Christmas. We have our holiday decorations organized in a basement corner, red and green boxes clearly marked and ready for Santa. Sparkly ornaments, tinsel, candles and trains . . .

Ahem.

All things in time.

We’ll start mums.