A day of love

Valentines heart

Happy Valentine’s Day, friends!

We’re all dug out from the snow and on the move here, and I’m hoping you all have a happy time celebrating the love you share with your significant others, family and friends. Preferably all of the above, right?

Spence is off today while I’m at the office, so I fully expect an epic culinary extravaganza when I get home — maybe with dark chocolate and a side of milk chocolate as an appetizer. That’s reasonable, I think. 😉

I felt this OMG PRESSURE earlier this week because it’s our first married Valentine’s, but honestly? I’m totally cool with just laying low and staying snuggled up at home, maybe with a movie or more Olympics coverage. I know we’re cooking in, so I will look forward to whatever surprise my chef-ly guy whips up!

Yes, I just said “chef-ly.” I don’t know.

Hugs to my lovely blog community today, too. I love and value our friendships, and I’m wishing you all a great day!

Love stories that won’t make you gag

It’s Valentine’s Day!

Hearts and sparkles and candy for everyone!

For as much as I love heart-shaped things and red things and L-O-V-E, there’s something undeniably cheesy — albeit fun — about this holiday. I have fond memories of writing out little cards for my classmates growing up, then waiting for my latest crush to declare his feelings on February 14. When the proclamation wasn’t forthcoming, I tried to tell myself there was always next year. Always the romantic!

My fiance and I will be cooking up a storm at home and avoiding the crowds tonight, and that’s just fine with me. On our first and only “engaged” Valentine’s Day, I’d rather avoid the chaos and catch up on “Downton Abbey” (though sweet Cupid, it’s been really depressing lately). We went out on Sunday for our traditional French dinner in a nearby town, and it was a sweet and personal evening!

ChocolatesAnd on this day devoted to romance, I’ve been thinking about love stories. I haven’t read enough good ones lately. I’m always seeking something sweeping in magnitude — yet grounded in reality. I want a give-and-take relationship between two people who recognize that while they could stand separately, they’re better together. I want my novels to be romantic without provoking frequent eye-rolls, and y’all know I can get down with an eye-roll. (It’s how I roll.) (And sorry for that bad pun.)

When it comes to love stories, I usually require them in my reading. An otherwise fabulous book without the emotion and drama of a blossoming romance just doesn’t hold the same appeal. There are exceptions to this, of course — and the love story itself is a delicate balancing act. It’s crucial to have things develop naturally — or for me to feel like they do, anyway.

I’m probably not making any sense. Too many contraband Valentine’s chocolates. Sugar rush!

(Only kidding. I’m still committed to healthy living, though those heart-shaped Peeps are eyeballing me.)

And so, in honor of this day of love, I present to you . . .

Meg’s Favorite Love Stories
(That Won’t Make You Gag)

The Lost Art of Keeping SecretsOkay, I’m a little biased with this one — because it’s one of my favorite books of all time. No exaggeration. In fact, if I can convince you to read one book in my years of book- and life-blogging, I hope it’s Eva Rice’s The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. It’s that good — and I’m that serious. Though the romance in Rice’s novel isn’t center-stage, it’s unforgettable . . . just like this story. In fact, I really need to pluck it back off my shelf; we’ve been separated for far too long.

I Remember YouBeyond its quaint setting in the English countryside, Harriet Evans’ I Remember You is everything I devour in a novel. Particular care is paid to the two leads: childhood best friends who grow up in one another’s pockets, but separate over the years through grief, romance and everything in between. Though it occasionally falls victim to some chick-lit cliches, it’s a sweeping tale of first love that really resonated with me — and was one I recommended for months.

Bridge of Scarlet LeavesSeparated by war, hostility and racism, Kristina McMorris’ lovebirds in Bridge of Scarlet Leaves face impossible heartache in their quest to just be together. (Makes online dating look like a cakewalk, eh?) This historical novel, set in World War II, is meticulously researched — and absolutely engrossing. Maddie and Lane make an unforgettable pairing.

The Love Goddess' Cooking SchoolWhen you pair romance with the undeniable pull of Italian cooking, you get a savory dish like Melissa Senate’s The Love Goddess’ Cooking School — and I gobbled it up. A budding romance told against the backdrop of familial love on the coast of Maine, this fun story left me with a full heart . . . and a growling stomach.

Anna and the French KissThere’s no denying the allure of Stephanie Perkins’ Anna and the French Kiss, a young adult novel that took the reading community by storm. With its Parisian setting, dreamy male lead and enticing will-they-or-won’t-they premise (they always start out as “just friends,” don’t they?), Perkins’ debut had one of the best finales I’ve read. I was literally swooning, if such a thing is possible, and I didn’t want it to end. If you’ve refrained from grabbing it until now, consider this your homework. Your Valentine’s Day homework.

Pucker up: Red velvet cheesecake cupcakes

So I know Valentine’s Day was a week ago — but in typical Meg fashion, I came down with a terrible cold the day on Feb. 15. Getting sick this time of year is sort of my M.O., though I’m thankful I was sick the day after and not the day of. I would have shared this recipe last week if I hadn’t been coughing loud enough for all of Southern Maryland to hear.

I don’t know anyone who isn’t crazy about red velvet cake — and as we recently celebrated a day of love and all things pink and red, making up a batch was a no-brainer. But I wanted something a little different, which is how I wound up adding one simple (but delicious) ingredient: cheesecake-flavored Jell-o pudding mix.

If you’re looking to spice up your next red velvet concoction, adding dry pudding mix is an easy way to introduce new flavors. Though it’s probably like sipping a Diet Coke while eating an entire bucket of buttery popcorn, These were a moist, creamy hit. I decorated them for V-Day, of course, but they would be a nice addition to any table.

Red Velvet Cheesecake Cupcakes

1 package red velvet cake mix
3 large eggs
1 1/4 cups water
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 box (3.4 oz) Jell-o instant pudding, cheesecake flavored
Frosting of your choice

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees F and place 24 cupcake liners in pans. In a large bowl, add cake mix and instant pudding; lightly stir. Add wet ingredients and mix until well-blended. Spoon into pans. Bake for 19-22 minutes or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool, then frost with frosting of your choice (I’d go for cheesecake-flavored!). Decorate as desired.

A (new) movie script ending

I have a lot of break-up songs on my iPod.

I was once a Broken-Hearted Girl, a moniker I wore like a badge of honor. I’ve always felt things deeply. When I was younger and less disciplined, this could result in epic arguments with boyfriends. Those fights would dissolve into ugly break-ups on the phone, in parking lots, outside of restaurants. Everywhere, really.

It’s funny to think about who I was then versus who I am now. Like all teens and early 20-somethings, I had no idea what I was looking for in a mate. My requirements, especially in the beginning, were slim: was he cute? And did he like me? If both were true, I would gladly chat with you on AOL Instant Messenger (oh, the days!) or accept a short-but-sweet phone call while my dad surveyed the scene from the next room. I wasn’t in my first “real” relationship until I was 17, which sounds young now — but trust that it felt old as dirt when I was a teen, obsessed with the fact that “everyone had a boyfriend” but me.

Over the years, my romantic entanglements were messy. There were the military men, including the Marine that broke my heart for the first time. (That sucked. But it was also seven years ago.) The boys who thought they were men — but really weren’t. The bad kissers. The dudes who couldn’t get their stuff together. The ones who were nice but just too nice — brotherly nice. And some fit several of those descriptions.

For a while, it felt like I was destined to wade through life without finding someone who actually meant something to me. After that first heartbreak, I felt resigned to just let the chips fall as they may. I didn’t really try. I was complacent at work, complacent in my friendships; I was too hung up on the past to move into the future. After ending an almost three-year relationship with a so wrong-for-me guy (who married someone else the following year), my one attempt at meeting someone organically was an epic disaster. I confused meeting a short guy with a larger-than-life ego as some sort of “kismet,” totally embarrassed myself by trying to force something that had no business being forced and then just felt . . . defeated. And awful.

Then I met Spencer.

{Top, April 2010, weeks after we met; October 2011}

I like talking about him — because I love him. As today is Valentine’s Day, I’ve been thinking about the paths that brought me to this moment. All the “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you” sort of times, you know? I get annoyed with all the empty cliches about “I found the man I love when I finally stopped looking!” because, you know, I was looking. I was very actively looking. I was on a dating site, for cryin’ out loud; when I finally woke up to the fact that I’m totally type-A and wasn’t cool with just waiting for a partner to drop into my lap, I was really committed to the search.

Still, Spencer made the “first move,” if you will, out there in cyberspace; I kept all our early email exchanges. We wrote back and forth just a few times before agreeing to meet for coffee on a Sunday afternoon. When I close my eyes, I can see him walking into the cafe with his long, unruly curls and easy smile. He was my third (and final) date in a week — a beacon I hadn’t known I’d been searching for.

From that initial meeting, we’ve been inseparable. I don’t have any doubts — about him; about us. There have been no teary fights. No arguments that lasted long into the night, and no fiery parking-lot break-ups. No accusations, and no broken trust.

I stopped listening to my iPod a few months back, sick of my endless streams of sad, sappy break-up tunes. I tired of the melancholy riffs of Death Cab for Cutie, though “A Movie Script Ending” was once a favorite song. They were all a complete carry-over from those broken-hearted days, and I longed to start fresh.

Except for the odd-ball moment, I don’t think about the past anymore.

And I think I’ll get my “movie script ending” after all.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

Boys like candy better than poetry, it seems

I love Valentine’s Day. I know some dismiss the holiday as another ploy for retailers to steal our hard-earned cash, but I really can’t find fault with a day designed to celebrate love. I mean, who doesn’t want it? Who doesn’t need it?

As adults, Valentine’s Day is a chance to ply our significant others with chocolates, cards and flowers. We share a smooch over a romantic dinner; we talk about the years gone by, experiences we’ve shared. It can be as crazy or as low-key as we want. Last year I was sick as a dog, so our plans included me mustering up the strength to go out for sushi and then falling asleep on the coach with some chocolates. And Spencer.

When we’re young, though, Valentine’s Day is a crisis waiting to happen. And if you think it’s no big deal whether you receive valentines in school, you’ve never been a 7-year-old.

I totally have. In second grade, Mrs. Brown orchestrated a way for us to leave each other notes: in the pink and red mailboxes we designed. Like many little girls, I had a massive crush on a classmate. He was blonde and blue-eyed. We met in the first-grade classroom next door, our hands touching over a shared bottle of Elmer’s Glue (or some such). His name was Daniel.

After loving him from afar for more than a year (a whole year!), I somehow decided that Valentine’s Day in Mrs. Brown’s class was D-Day. No more hesitation. Time to get bold and do something crazy. Looking back, it’s funny to see shades of who I am now in that tiny body. If there’s one way I have always hoped to win a man’s heart, it’s through a letter — or poem. I’m all about seduction through the written word, baby.

Daniel couldn’t have known what was in my heart of hearts, of course. The night before Valentine’s Day, I sat down with an array of cards my mom picked out. In the early ’90s, we’d reached a point of equality: each student was to bring a valentine for every member of the class. Regardless of how we feel about it, no one was left out.

But which valentine to assign to which kid was vitally important, you know — the wrong message to the wrong kid could prove lethal. I mean, what if you gave a “Be mine, Valentine!” to the boy who throws rocks at you on the playground? He could think you like him. And that is so gross.

Choosing Daniel’s valentine was tricky. After writing out every card but his, I had to find the perfect one. Valentine’s Day is all about love, I figured; how could I do anything but express my feelings for the boy with whom I was irrationally obsessed? Um, as a 7-year-old?

After much deliberation, I finally chose a card featuring Barbie with arms outstretched to Ken, her face split into a smile. “I Love You,” it read. My heart was pounding as hard as it ever had, but I wrote his name and signed my own. Our fates were sealed.

Passing out our valentines the next day, I crept up to Daniel’s mailbox and slipped the life-changing note inside. This was my chance to open up to him! To let him know how I felt! He’d see Barbie and Ken, read that “I Love You” and think . . .

Nothing. From the corner of my eye, I watched as classmates sifted through their sparkly bounty, enjoying the lollipops other kids had dropped in their mailboxes. If Daniel read my card, I couldn’t tell; he was probably too busy eating candy.

An early lesson learned: poetry’s great and all, but the way to a man’s heart is actually through his stomach.

Those you hold safe in your heart

Driving home from an early Valentine’s Day dinner with Spencer in D.C. last night, I shared with him a truth: I’m more myself with him, this man it took me years to find, than anyone else I’ve ever met.

It’s been a long road to get here.

But I got here.

We can say Valentine’s Day is silly, manufactured, artificial; we can say it’s all hype and no substance, a ploy by “greeting card companies” to rake in the dough (and they do). But at its heart is a real sentiment: expressing affection for those we love.

And me? I’m in love.

I wouldn’t write anything on a blog that I wouldn’t tell Spencer myself, either in a car or on a Metro train or in a card or together at dinner. So here’s what I’d tell him now, and every day:

Thank you for finding me when I wasn’t sure I could be found. For your endless support, encouragement and thoughtfulness, and the way you make me feel treasured and safe. “Lucky” isn’t the right word to accurately explain how I feel for having met you, and I’m grateful every day to have you in my life.

Thanks for being a man I’m happy to call mine.

And happy Valentine’s Day to you, my friends, and everyone you hold safe in your heart.