Why I’ve converted to the Aldi way of life

I used to be a grocery store snob.

Here in the suburbs, chain groceries are everywhere. Giant, Safeway, Weis, Food Lion — not to mention the expansive grocery areas of Target and Walmart, where I find myself at least once (OK, twice) a week.

I loved Giant best. It was close to our first apartment and, after I took over grocery duties early in our marriage, I felt grown-up and responsible inspecting apples for blemishes and acting like I knew the difference between different cuts of steak.

(Ha! I used to buy steak. That’s cute.)

Spencer and I shopped together, making it our Monday after-work ritual. My husband loves trying new things, so all sorts of international items would wind up with our order. We were impulsive. I didn’t make a list. Didn’t meal plan. We wandered freely like the newlyweds we were, looking at each other by the deli counter. “I don’t know,” we’d say. “What do you feel like?”

The variety was captivating. Standing in front of the dairy case, 50 — heck, 100? — varieties of yogurt were at our disposal. Did we want toasted coconut or Key lime? Greek or plain? Dannon or Oikos?

I’d stare at the flavors and brands and prices. I’d cross-reference which was cheapest with my personal preferences. I’d think about what we liked in the past. Was coffee-flavored yogurt actually … gross? Did Spencer hate the mango? Should I stock up now, or wait until it went on sale?

Decisions. So many decisions.

Grocery shopping today — with a 2-year-old and 6-week-old — is … well, it’s a production. One we don’t make, given I go alone. I typically run out on Sundays, known to be the worst day to hit the grocery store with the rest of town, with Spence holding down the fort. I’m always a woman on a mission.

And I never leave the house until I’ve created a plan for the week. That’s how you overspend, you know? Wind up with all sorts of stuff you forget about, forgotten on a dusty pantry shelf. I sit down with recipe books and jot down what I’ll need to pick up versus what we have already to use up. Once that list is done, I rewrite a new list organized by department: the meats together, the veggies together, etc. So I don’t forget anything.

Have I mentioned I’m a little OCD?

This takes a half hour. I often write all this down while hiding in the corner of the kitchen that Oliver can’t see from the living room, thus granting me time to sip my long-cold coffee and put two thoughts together without toddler interference.

Up until recently, I was still darkening Giant’s door. I love Giant. The store is new and clean and rarely crowded. The parking lot is a pleasure to get in and out of. The selection — oh, the selection! — of produce is awesome, and every aisle is well-stocked. I don’t have to worry about Giant being “out” of … well, anything. It’s reliable. Predictable. And 10 minutes away.

So why the heck am I now schlepping up to an Aldi?

And … liking it?

My sister told me about Aldi years ago. Newly opened in a neighboring town, it’s tucked off the highway in an inconvenient and insanely busy location. From our current house, it’s easily a 35-minute drive. Always in traffic.

But I go. Because it’s cheap. And with two working parents and two kiddos soon to be in day care (don’t end, maternity leave!), affordability is important.

But even more than that?

It’s simple.

My brain is fried. We get very little sleep. I make what feels like endless decisions a day for my children and my husband and myself. When I go back to work in two weeks, that stress will multiply tenfold. (I’m trying not to think about it, really.)

At Aldi, if you want chicken, here are breasts and tenderloins. If you want ground beef, you grab the 93/7 split — ’cause that’s what they have. If you want milk, here’s a gallon of milk. Apples? Take a bag. You have to buy the bag. No debating Gala versus Pink Lady, you know? And how many of each?

When I first went into Aldi with Spencer, I was … well, I was a snob. Seriously. Where were my 10 kinds of shredded cheese? My super-specific favorite coffee creamer? My whole wheat sandwich thins?

It’s true that Aldi does not have everything. But you know what? They have most things. Many things. Enough for us.

And something strange happened. The simplicity, the lack of variety …

It’s been a balm on my frazzled soul.

There is something very zen about Aldi. I think it stems from the relief of knowing I’m getting out of there with my weekly order for less than $80 — absolutely, totally impossible for my family at any other grocery chain. I don’t always come home with everything on my list (fresh ginger was a no-go yesterday), but you know what? I improvise. We can manage. Or occasionally stop by the other chains for those unique finds.

If you’d told me last year that I’d be dragging my behind all the way to Brandywine to go to Aldi, where the parking lot is always full and the carts must be unlocked with a quarter (and I never have a freakin’ quarter!), I would have sipped from an overpriced latte and sneered.

Sneered, I tell you.

But I get it now. Megan Johnson, mom of two (!), harried wife and employee and daughter and sister and friend with a thinning bank account … she’s a convert.

I like easy and I cannot lie. It takes longer to get there, yes, and traffic is awful, but once I’m there? It’s easy, breezy, lemon-squeeze-y.

Now, if only I could find a quarter.


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Here comes Hadley Rose

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Spencer and I met seven years ago today.

As I type, our infant daughter — our sweet second child — is snoozing next to me, her tiny hands clasped beneath her chin.

Hadley Rose arrived on March 10 — 17 days before her due date. At nearly 38 weeks pregnant, I wasn’t technically full-term, but you know what? After our premature journey with her brother, it wasn’t even a blip on my radar. She arrived hollering and beautiful, 6 pounds and 12 ounces of joy.

It started that Thursday. I actually had my stuff together enough to throw steak and vegetable soup in the slow cooker that morning, chopping vegetables before Oliver woke up. I wore a cute tunic. I did my hair. As though I knew that would be my last “normal” morning, I enjoyed a cup of coffee over “Good Morning America” and rejoiced in the quiet before my toddler started calling from upstairs.

Dropped Ollie off at daycare. Drove north. When I ran into a Wawa before work, I noticed quite a few men tripping over themselves to help me as I dropped or reached for things. I’ve been visibly pregnant since the fall, but I can’t say I noticed much “special treatment.” Which, you know, is fine. I consider holding doors to be a basic human courtesy, you know?

But these guys were holding doors. Like, standing there and waiting for me because they were concerned such a super pregnant lady wouldn’t make it over the threshold unassisted.

I texted my husband about that afterward. “Guess I really look ready to pop,” I wrote.

My 37-week appointment with my doctor was just after noon. Her office is directly behind my own, so I usually walk, but something told me that extra exertion wasn’t a good idea! So I made the 60-second drive and headed in, taking in the curious glances of other patients. Seeing their tiny bellies for contrast, I definitely felt ready to explode.

My blood pressure was slightly elevated during my exam. After my experiences with preeclampsia, developing the severe complication at 32 weeks pregnant with my first child, we’ve been on red-alert for any anomalies since I learned I was expecting. But my blood pressure has been fine. It was still OK that Thursday — but had jumped 20 points from the previous week.

My OB initially ordered blood tests and said she’d call me the next day with the results. But after a third high-ish reading with a nurse, she met me in the hallway instead. I knew what she was going to say.

“Labor & Delivery?” I asked, already mentally running through who I needed to call (Spencer, namely). We’d been through this rodeo before.

“I would just feel better,” she said, noting that they could run tests and hook me up to monitors that would confirm everything was fine sooner than she could.

At the hospital where I’d once hoped to deliver Oliver, I hung out in a triage room in L&D listening to another woman in labor down the hall — just as I had two years ago, waiting to learn our fate as I got sicker. Honestly, I’m proud of myself. I did not panic. I had serious post-traumatic stress after Ollie was born and that moment — hearing another woman having a baby, while I desperately hoped to hold my own baby in — is very sharp in my mind.

Less than 12 hours later, I’d be the one with screams echoing down that hallway. But I didn’t know that yet.

My labs all came back clear: no preeclampsia, no issues. But while I was being monitored, the nurse kept hovering around a snake-like print-out, looking it over periodically. “So everything looks good,” she said, “but do you feel all those contractions?”

Apparently I was contracting every five minutes or so — a pressure I guess I’d noticed, but only in passing. I’d been experiencing uncomfortable Braxton-Hicks contractions for months. These weren’t painful or particularly noteworthy, though they were consistent.

As always, I kept thinking a doctor was going to come in and release me with instructions to “take it easy.” I kept in touch with Spencer as he got Oliver home, reminding him about the soup in the slow cooker. “I’ll probably be home soon,” I wrote.

When the nurse popped in to check on me an hour later, she was dressed in scrubs for another patient’s surgery. She checked the print-out of my contractions again.

“Do you think I’m heading out of here soon?” I asked. “I’m just trying to get my son situated, and wondering if I should call my family? I don’t want to alarm them, but . . .”

She gave me an incredulous — though not unkind — look. “I would call them,” she said. “You’re definitely in labor.”

My hands began to shake, but I called my husband and relayed all this information. I contacted my sister next, then my dad. Everyone answered the phone warily, as though they knew immediately what I was going to say: it’s time.

I finally had that moment. It was scary, but also felt good.

Spencer arrived with our hospital bag after getting Oliver settled with my sister and brother-in-law. My parents stopped by to see me at the hospital. My contractions were already picking up. By midnight, they were so intense that I was struggling to breathe through them — but I clutched the rail of my bed and just held on, riding the waves as long and calmly as I could.

It felt awful, all-consuming. But I was only 2 centimeters dilated.

So I never intended to have a “natural” birth. I wanted drugs. All the drugs. My labor with Oliver was long and traumatic and painful, capped off with a failed epidural. I didn’t want that again. I wanted to feel calm and in control — as much as one can, anyway — and had planned to try the epidural again.

Given I was already in the hospital, I never imagined that would be an issue. But things move fast.

After one of the longest nights of my life, I was checked about 6 a.m.: just 3 centimeters. The doctor said she would check again in an hour. If I didn’t progress more, they would start pitocin to move me along. I moaned and cried and clung to that rail, with Spencer next to me trying to provide comfort. I was back in Pain World, where nothing exists outside that pressure and hurting.

When the team came back in around 7 a.m., 7:30, the announcement was equivalent to getting struck by lightning: I was “complete” and ready to push. I’d somehow gone from 3 centimeters to 10, and now there was no time for the epidural.

If I thought I was scared before, now I was terrified.

After squeezing my eyes shut against all the lights and instruments that descended from the ceiling, I felt the calm presence of my husband and OB at my side and just did the darn thing. I pushed for a long time — long enough to feel totally exhausted, wanting to give up; long enough to pull my leg muscles — but eventually the pain gave way to relief, and she was here.

Hadley arrived at 8:16 a.m. with a head of dark hair. They put her on my chest immediately, both of us crying. That sweet weight is not something I’ll ever forget. I held her for a while — an opportunity I never had with her brother, who was whisked off immediately to the NICU. It was surreal.

And quick, I guess — in hindsight, anyway! I was so flooded with relief afterward: no longer anxiously running through possible labor scenarios in my mind; not obsessing about having to be transported to Baltimore again; not worrying about delivery complications. No more fears about preeclampsia and it coming back, being worse. Stealing one or both of us away.

It was over. We were fine. I’d done it!

We have a daughter.

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Hadley is a sweet, calm, quiet little baby — so quiet that I frequently stare at her chest to make sure she’s breathing, watching her snooze in a bassinet next to the couch. From the time Ollie came home, he would snuffle and coo and whimper and whine; you never doubted he was nearby. But Hadley? She’s so chill that it almost . . . makes me nervous.

And so far, none of Ollie’s antics seem to disturb her. Which is kind of a miracle. Our almost 2-year-old toddler has lately earned the nickname “the tornado,” ’cause this kid is sweet chaos in sneakers. He’s nonstop action and energy, a 30-pound tank of opinions, and we love him so very much — but he is exhausting.

Hadley, it seems, is his opposite.

Of course, she was born 11 days ago — hardly enough time to make sweeping judgments on her little personality. But given the Tornado really has been the Tornado since he left the NICU, perhaps we’ll get lucky with our second.

And if not? That’s OK, too.

Because we have a little more figured out this time. We are all adjusting. Having just found our footing as parents with Oliver, I knew the transition to mom-of-two would be easier in some ways and more complicated in others. The lack of sleep is less soul-destroying this go ’round, certainly, given Ollie is still up many nights and we’re used to existing in a zombie-like state. That’s what coffee is for.

Spencer and I have our “shift work” arranged pretty neatly: he takes the first one, staying up with the baby and sleeping intermittently until 2 a.m. or so, when I come downstairs and take over. So far we’ve avoided disturbing Ollie too much; though with as quiet as Hadley is, there isn’t much to disturb him. This process allows both of us to get a three- or four-hour chunk of sleep, as well as other cat-naps, and I actually . . . don’t feel that bad. All things considered.

It’s weird being home so much. I’ve been fighting some of the old anxiety that emerged after Ollie was born. But I know this is the only time in my adult life I’ll have this uninterrupted time with my newborn daughter and son; as hard as it is (and does often feel hard), I know I’m also fortunate. I’m trying to just take everything as it comes and not project too far ahead.

For the moment, my job is just to be their mom. No need to multitask, obsessively check email or hop on conference calls. Though my go-go-go personality has struggled a bit with this, I’m embracing the blessing of time. Of sitting. Of just . . . holding my baby.

Oh, how I know they don’t keep.

 

 

 

 

Five things on Friday

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1. As a belated Mother’s Day gift, my sister, Mom and I recently enjoyed tea and a tour at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Despite living just 40-ish minutes outside the city, I don’t get downtown much these days — let alone on a Tuesday. It was such a cool, fun experience, and the food was delicious! We all I know was likely British in a past life, so the tea tradition speaks to my scone-loving soul. Highly recommend to anyone looking for a unique opportunity in the city.

2. I can’t help but feel like August is the only thing standing between me and fall. Glorious, beautiful, crisp and cozy fall. Last year I totally lost my marbles and started decorating before Labor Day, which I realize was . . . a little premature. This year? I’m trying to reign in my enthusiasm, but it’s pointless. Oliver was only 6 months old last Halloween, but this year I feel like he’ll be closer to “getting it” — and I’ll be able to better position him for pumpkin photo shoots! This is the No. 1 reason to have a child, by the way: photo shoots. (Just kidding. Er, sort of.)

3. I don’t like to toot my own horn, but I think I’ve earned a trophy for adulting for finally resolving a medical bill for testing during my pregnancy (!!) that has been haunting us since January 2015. It’s a long and boring story involving many phone calls, emails, stapled statements and blah blah blah, but as of yesterday, I fought the good fight and won. Just so happy to have that resolved. Insurance issues are the worst. Also, now I don’t have to worry about bankruptcy, so. Sweet relief!

4. Oliver has been saying “Mama” like crazy lately, along with “Dada” and “Baby” (bayyy-beee). He’s also beginning to wave, smoosh up his lips for a “kiss” and is definitely grasping the concept of “no” (whether he follows it is, of course, another story). So excited to be hitting these milestones!

5. I may or may not have started my Christmas shopping spreadsheet — along with said holiday shopping. As a list-loving American, this is the only way I can keep myself organized. Despite my good intentions, I was one of those people scrambling last-minute to finish shopping last year . . . and I wound up bulk-ordering on Amazon to just officially say I was done. Let me shout it loud and proud: I AM NOT doing that this year! Like, seriously. I want to enjoy the heck out of the holidays and not feel the rampant anxiety that consumed me last year, ’cause we all know that is not what it’s about. So I’ve already purchased a few things and scribbled down ideas for others. I feel better already.

Happy weekend, friends! And thanks for staying with me during the long write meg! drought. I find my creative juices stymied by exhaustion so much lately that it’s hard to put fingers to keyboard. But I’m not going anywhere. ❤


Handing him the spoon

Oliver

We’re inching closer toward sippy cups, not bottles. At meal times (which are now breakfast, lunch, dinner — same as us), Oliver grabs the spoon to “feed” himself. He’s cruising along the furniture, scaling walls and gripping ledges. He said his first word: “baby.” Now he says it all the time.

These developments fill me with joy, of course. We’re making strides! He’s growing up! At 15 months old, Oliver is a toddler. He toddles. His face his slimmed — along with those rubber band wrists. His legs are long and strong. He is tall enough to reach door handles and drawers, to pull down objects I never imagined he could reach. He surprises me daily by what he absorbs and parrots. He misses nothing.

Oliver is growing. And it is wonderful. I just didn’t expect to feel so . . . sad.

There is one blank date left in his “milestones” book — the one I’ve used to mark all his firsts since birth. It’s for first steps. And though I’m happy thinking about slipping on his first pair of shoes, about leading him along sidewalks and down new paths, I also feel intensely nostalgic when I realize the “firsts” are nearly done.

Will I miss the 3 a.m. feedings, the temper tantrums, the many bites of sweet potato that wind up in my lap — not his mouth?

Well . . . no. But yes. But no.

It’s bittersweet. Everything.

Parenthood is a study in opposites. It feels laughable to say I’ll miss washing bottles every night when it’s been the bane of my existence, but here’s the thing: it became our new normal. It’s a ritual, even a soothing one — and the idea of everything changing, as it so often does, fills me with apprehension. I just got used to this.

In some ways, I feel like I’ve only just found my mama footing. This stage is now comfortable, knowable. I don’t have to remind myself I’m a parent anymore — it’s been absorbed into my bones. And with my son now reaching for me, patting my cheek, resting his head on my shoulder — the only shoulder he sometimes wants in the world — well . . . that’s it. That’s it. What could matter more than that?

It isn’t all sunshine, of course. It never is. After a great visit with our family in New York, Oliver came home with a fever that burned him up for five days. The doctors couldn’t figure out why. It would climb to 102, 103, 104 — and just when Spencer and I would start to panic, fumbling for our car keys in the dark, it would break. He would rest. And then it would start up again.

There were many 4 a.m. baths in lukewarm water, frantic phone calls to the after-hours number, lots of pacing as we debated whether to drive to the hospital or urgent care or wait until morning, waiting and waiting and watching his chest rise and fall.

The panicky dread of those moments isn’t unique to us, certainly. No parent wants to see their child sick. But every time Oliver gets ill, I sink back into unpleasant memories of our month in the hospital. Sometimes I have to physically force myself to sit, take deep breaths and remember this time isn’t that time. Our 3-pound baby is now a 27-pound tank. He can handle it. We can handle it.

But that is easier said than done. One of my guilty pleasures is “Little Women: LA,” a reality show chronicling the lives of a group of friends, and several ladies are pregnant this season. Elena is expecting twin boys — and toward the end of her pregnancy, which is being documented now, she develops preeclampsia. Noting that she’s only 34 weeks pregnant, everyone is panicking at the idea of an early delivery — how risky, how dangerous, how life-threatening. “She can’t deliver this early!” they cry.

And I delivered at 32 weeks.

Preeclampsia changed everything. The idea of becoming pregnant again — and possibly not having the same happy ending — is terrifying. Thinking about adding to our family, well . . . I could get preeclampsia again, or I could not. And there is no way to know. There is no way to prevent it, to predict it, to expect it. If anything, I have a higher chance because I’ve had it once. It was severe, and it set in early.

It’s a roll of the dice. And I’ve never been a gambler.

We’ve reached the stage where well-meaning folks ask if we’ll have a second child. I probably get asked this once a week: by friends, acquaintances, readers. To the outside world, the world in which I look like a “normal” woman with a healthy child, I understand the innocence of that question. But there is no easy answer.

“We’ll see,” I say. What else can we do?

Contrary to, well, this entire post, I actually try not to dwell on the past — or the future. We’re usually too tired for that, anyway. Things could have turned out poorly, but they didn’t. I look at my son and feel relief and love and joy.

Oliver has been working with professionals to get “up to speed” with developmental tasks — particularly physical ones, like crawling — for a while. One of his therapists recently pointed out that it was me who was uncomfortable with Oliver feeding himself, projecting my fears of choking and other harm onto his daily habits, well . . . that hit me like a slap.

But she was right. And now I think constantly about how I cannot let my anxiety hold him back. Even when that is hard — or feels impossible. Even when I want to bubblewrap him and never leave our house.

So we try new things at dinner, even when he gags on foods he cannot possibly choke on (pureed green beans, anyone?). Even when I know we’ll spend longer cleaning up the mess than he actually spent eating. I let him grasp the lip of the coffee table, ready to spring into action as he moves along. We stand by as he pushes a toy walker, looking so proud as he plants each foot. He’s always walking toward the door, seeking sunshine. He loves peeking out.

I barely breathe when he falls asleep in my lap — a rarity these days. I’m still even when my arm is asleep. Even when I can’t reach the TV remote. Even when I have to use the restroom, and I’m starving, and I don’t think I brushed my teeth that morning. Even when I need to rest myself.

Savor it, hold on to it: that’s all I can do. Nudge him forward knowing he’ll always have a safe place to land — as long as his father and I can help it, anyway.

We hand him the spoon.


Not immune to the gloom (but stepping it up)

Stairs

It’s been raining for weeks.

WEEKS. Not being dramatic. We had a rare respite yesterday with a 70-degree day and sunshine, but aside from that? RAIN. Rain every day. Every. single. day.

Though I spend almost the entire day indoors, I’m not immune to the gloom. Our office moved to a high-rise in March with a large expanse of windows (natural light, thank goodness), but my view now? Clouds. Gray clouds. Pouring rain.

As it is for many folks, I’m sure, the weather can definitely set the tone for the day.

Especially when I am, for the first time in ages, wanting to move.

In my Christmas stocking last year was a pedometer — a gift from my parents I embraced with gusto. As a competitive person obsessed with numbers and tracking, it was so interesting to see how much — or, in my case, how little — I walked each day.

For Mother’s Day, Oliver (er, Spencer) surprised me with my humble pedometer’s sleek older sibling: the FitBit One, which links to an app that gives me graphs and charts of my activity each day. Charts! For an English major, I get stupidly excited about graphs, man. And having a tangible way to map my progress as I try to move more each day has been really gratifying. And fun.

My step-count is nothing to get excited about. While the American Heart Association recommends walking 10,000 steps a day, I’ve crossed that finish line once since January. I make a concentrated effort to take the stairs at work, take breaks in the afternoons, even force myself to make an extra lap around the building before I head in the front door.

During our short-lived reunion with the sun yesterday, I actually took a 20-minute walk along the meandering sidewalks outside our building: an extra 1,400 steps.

But on an average day, I’m still doing about 4,000-5,000 steps — well shy of the 10,000 step goal.

Purely for selfish reasons, I recently researched how to add steps to your work day for a feature in our health magazine. SparkPeople had some great tips, and this one was my favorite:

“Be Inefficient. We are all so busy that it makes sense to multitask, combining several errands in a single trip, ordering takeout from the computer we’re already sitting in front of, or carrying that armload of clothes + toys + shoes + toilet paper upstairs in a single trip.

While technology has made a lot of things easier on us, what if you deliberately tried to be inefficient — any time it involved being on your feet. On days that I know I’ve been less active, I choose to be inefficient as a way to get more activity in while getting my daily chores or work done. For example, I’ll carry the laundry downstairs in three smaller trips instead of one oversized basket, or pick up and put away one item in the house at a time instead of filling my arms in an efficient way.

Although it can be difficult to justify taking more time to do basic things when you’re busy, I justify it to myself by thinking of it as multitasking: I’m getting activity in at the same time as my chores.”

I’m the person half-collapsed under a pile of grocery bags because I hate having to make two trips from the car, so this? This spoke to me. Spoke to my essence of very being. In the morning, I often come close to wrenching my back out because I carry my purse, laptop bag, lunch bag, Oliver’s bottles and the car seat out before I come back for the baby.

And you know what that is? Crazy.

I’m getting better. Thinking more. Being conscious of how little I normally move, how much better I feel with some activity and enjoying the ripple effect of wanting to eat better when I’m doing better with my movement.

Just wearing the FitBit is a huge motivator for me: knowing I’m earning a few extra steps (and credit for the stairs!) when I have to haul my rump back up for another diaper or my misplaced cell phone makes me . . . well, less irritable, actually.

And maybe that was Spencer’s plan all along. 😉


Any favorite tricks or tips for moving more during your day?
Spill your secrets. We’re all friends here!


Hands to help on a Monday night

Bread

As a writer, I’m used to asking the questions.

I inquire. Follow up. Probe, maybe — just a little! — to get to the core of a story in a way I hope will do the subject justice.

After seven years of writing a column, I’m still getting used to being “in the field” writing features — but am enjoying the heck out of it. I rarely get nervous these days because stories are stories, and that’s my job: to tell stories. Mine. Yours. His. Hers. Theirs.

I’ve started spending Monday evenings at a local soup kitchen. I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, other than I felt an extreme pull — a need, really — to go. I heard about the need for volunteers at work and, before I knew it, I’d signed up for the next shift. The spiritual part of me thinks that was God, and maybe it was. After sitting behind a desk most of the day, I guess I wanted to get my hands a little dirty.

I’m not saying this to pat myself on the back. In fact, it feels strange to write about it at all — but in a short time, these Monday dinners have become an important part of my life. They matter to me. These people, my neighbors, matter to me.

When I interviewed Angela Mitchell last month, she inspired me so much with her dedication to the Chesapeake Bay and its inhabitants. We talked about how some folks would love to get involved in volunteer work, but it seems daunting.

“Many people say, ‘I don’t know where to start, but I have these two hands and a Saturday morning,’” Mitchell said.

Two hands and a Saturday morning.

Two hands . . . and a Monday night.

And so I’ve started signing up to help at dinners, using an office restroom to change into faded jeans after work. The first time I came to serve anyone who needed a hot meal, at least 20 volunteers crowded the church hall. Everyone was bubbly, eager to help; so many people were there to cook and clean that I wasn’t really needed.

But I stayed. Tried to make myself useful. And at a dinner designed to unite the community and feed the hungry — older people; younger people; homeless people; people coming straight from work in faded uniforms — I looked into faces and listened to stories.

A young girl took a shine to me, lingering around the table of donated goods I was periodically manning. It was her sixth birthday, and she looked eagerly through stacks of school supplies. In her hands was a birthday card, and she asked me to read it aloud several times. “It had $10 in it,” she said.

“Are you going to save your money or spend it?” I asked.

“Spend it!” she said eagerly, as any child would.

I asked her if she had something in mind, and the look she gave me nearly burned.

“Food,” she said. “Duh.”


Eating in America


I have never wanted for food. Never had to fall asleep hungry or go to school hungry or watch others eat with nothing for lunch. My biggest food-related challenge has been to eat less of it — and the idea of a 6-year-old wanting (needing?) to spend birthday money not on toys or clothes, but lunch? Well.

I was not there to pity anyone, and they don’t want our pity. I wasn’t looking for a “thank you.” This was not for a story.

At least . . . not that kind of story.

In sharp contrast to my first time volunteering, when the hall was bursting with eager assistants, I walked in Monday to find two women struggling to pull down chairs and set up tables with just 30 minutes before guests would start arriving. Nothing was cooked, and the room was quiet. There were five of us to feed 40-plus people: serving, assisting, seating, helping, cleaning.

I panicked.

I assumed every night at the soup kitchen would be like my first: all hustle-and-bustle, laughter and ease, many people gathered to help many other people. Someone else in charge. Someone else with authority.

But this wasn’t the other volunteers’ first rodeo. As guests filtered in, I was amazed at the speed with which meatloaf, mashed potatoes, vegetables and rolls sprang from the kitchen. The women in charge were quick, kind and completely in control. After the room was set up for diners, I helped greet everyone and got them situated before we began serving. Many were lined up outside in the sun.

As we rushed to fill drink orders, bring out full plates and track down pats of butter, a young man reached out a hand. “Hi,” he said. “What’s your name?”

If I’m being honest, honest to the bone, well . . . I expected a leer. A come-on. A flirtation. Being asked my name has almost always preceded an unwelcome remark — though at 30, I rarely deal with that sort of thing anymore.

But I told him.

“Nice to meet you, Megan,” he said, and the two men with him also looked up with tired eyes. I smiled before grabbing plates and moving on.

A few minutes later, I passed by again — and the man put out a hand to catch my attention. “I’m sorry — what’s your name again?”

I told him, stifling a snap of impatience. A family was waiting on sweet tea.

“Megan,” he said, “can I ask you something?”

Here it comes, I thought. But I said, “Sure.”

“Megan . . . why do you . . .” He paused to take a slug of his water. Then he glanced at his friends, seemingly for help to pull the words he wanted from the meaty-scented air between us. Finally he asked, “Why do you do what you do?”

And I stood there, rooted to the sticky floor, used cups in my hands and sweaty hair in my face.

What I do?


Veggies


I was not the one who built this nonprofit from the ground up. I hadn’t cooked or organized this dinner. I had not donated meals, goodies or much-needed funds. I was just a worker bee: running plates, scrubbing gravy bowls, crafting Arnold Palmers from the iced tea and lemonade dispensers for delighted children.

I’m not doing much of anything, I thought. I’m just here. I showed up.

“I . . . don’t know,” I said. “I just heard about it and . . . felt like I needed to come.”

And that was the truth. The plain truth.

I don’t like to think about others being hungry — especially children. There are so many causes to care about, so much that can leave us inspired and heartbroken and eager to help. The more I volunteer to serve dinners, the more I feel the need to serve dinners.

I don’t want to talk about helping or plan to help. I just want to do it.

Maybe your cause, like Angela, is to work to preserve your home for future generations. Maybe it’s to encourage others to vote or help rebuild communities or encourage sustainable living or raise funds for cancer research.

Whatever it is, you can start small. Wade in. Commit to a few hours, then a few hours more. Get others involved. Give the gift of your attention.

Sometimes the simplest questions have the hardest answers. And even if we can’t do much, we can do something.

We can show up.


The sugary smell of springtime

Cherry blossom

Hello. It’s me.

I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet?

Just kidding! But also . . . hi. I really didn’t plan to vanish like that — and though I’m not generally one to blog about blogging, I didn’t want to swoop in here and pretend like it hasn’t been almost a month since you heard from me.

Hi!

So it’s spring now — a glorious, marvelous, fresh-from-the-dryer season with its new buds and warm breezes. My parents and I made a trip into Washington on Saturday to see the cherry blossoms, which were mostly dormant . . . but still beautiful. Mom and I try to get to the Tidal Basin every spring, and that was the only time we could go — so we soldiered through a rainy forecast and enjoyed our walk in the city with my dad — an actual D.C. tour guide — as tour guide.

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Oliver is just three weeks from being an honest-to-goodness 1-year-old. I’m sure I’ll try to pull my thoughts together about that before April 12, but am not sure I’ll be able to! This has been the hardest, craziest, most exciting, most terrifying and truly insane year of my life. When I think back on my entrance into motherhood, I’m filled with head-shaking disbelief at everything we’ve seen and done since last spring.

It wasn’t always snuggles and rainbows — but is it for anyone? More often than not, it was coughing fits and late-night talk-shows over bottles and laundry, omg so much laundry, and about 10,876 viewings of “The Muppets” — the only show that will hold Ollie’s interest for more than 45 seconds.

But, as they say, would I trade any of it?

Well, yes — I’d trade some of it. Absolutely. That week with hand, foot and mouth virus and 1 a.m. ER visits, to start.

But most? The rest? Never.

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We’re excited for Easter and his first birthday party, for longer days and warmer nights and walks around the neighborhood. I still have my “I’m someone’s mother” moments — and still wonder if I’m somehow screwing this all up already. But they’re stretching out longer, pulled like taffy. They don’t plague me like they did.

I’ve been reading in fits and starts, unable to gain traction with any book in particular. I haven’t finished a print/Kindle book in ages, but am loving — LOVING — Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, read by the author on audio. It is funny, uplifting, ripe with girl power . . . and though I didn’t know much about Rhimes beyond an early obsession with “Grey’s Anatomy,” she is quickly becoming a personal heroine.

On the weight loss front, I’ve stalled a bit. After dropping 10 pounds and thinking I was back into the swing of Weight Watchers, I abruptly derailed and went on a cookie binge. (Wish I were kidding.)

It started with the eager smiles of Girl Scouts and their deliciously evil samoas . . . and once I got a taste of that sugar again, I just started feeling tired. Tired of tracking, of worrying, of planning, of obsessing. Tired. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, eat what I wanted to eat.

So I did.

I carried on like that for a week or two — but the impact was obvious. I was back to feeling lethargic, guilty, sluggish. It takes more time to plan and prepare healthy snacks, but it’s worth it. Instead of holding my feet to the fire, however, I’m easing my way back in. Going back to an all-in Weight Watchers mentality wasn’t working for me this go ’round, but I’m taking all my WW-acquired knowledge and making simple changes every day.

I’ll get there. And honestly? After all my body has gone through lately, I just can’t be really tough on her. I give her the benefit of the doubt. Cut her some slack. That doesn’t mean it’s OK to binge-eat Oreos at 10 p.m., but I’m less inclined to sacrifice small pleasures all the time.

The key is, of course, to keep them small. Not, like, half-a-package worth.

But that’s another post.

So! There you have it. I’ve missed y’all and hope my radio silence doesn’t become a regular thing. I’d like to get back into reading and writing and blogging often in the months to come, but my creative energy is dedicated to my full-time writing gig — and speaking of which . . .

My columns are now available through a digital subscription to our newspapers! I haven’t discussed it much here because work/life boundaries and all, but “Right, Meg?” publishes twice a week on life, motherhood, growing up, etc. Kind of like my blog posts — but on steroids. And in AP style.

I’m also writing features for our regional magazine, Chesapeake 360. They’re fun pieces pretty specific to Southern Marylanders, but the stories are free online with profiles on many cool places. This vintage store blew me away.

So if you need me, I’ll be blowing all my cash on a distressed bedroom bench.

I really feel it’s what Chip and Joanna would want.