Why It’s Okay to Have a Bad Day

IMG_0017I’ve got resting bitch face. I know this about myself, because I see it every morning in the mirror when I first wake up. Also, I have an almost violent aversion to people who say “You’d be so pretty if you just smiled more!” (Important memo: don’t ever say that to anyone, ever. Especially not to me.) To solve this, I try to smile. I smile when I’m driving. I try to smile even when I’m taking out the garbage. In fact, to fight the depression that’s part of my chemical DNA I’ll surely fight for the rest of my life, I’ve made a habit of “looking on the bright side” of almost every situation. I try my hardest to combat sadness and negativity in my life. It’s just what I do.

But sometimes, you just have a bad day. I’ve had a bad couple of days. I attended a funeral of a person I wasn’t ready to say good-bye to, then I fought with someone I love, then caught one of my kids in a lie. It felt like the universe was punching me in the gut a little.

And I’m writing about this because I know everyone who reads this has felt this way from time to time. Sometimes, things just suck. Sometimes, we just need to allow ourselves the luxury of saying, “This sucks. I don’t feel good about it.”

I have a wise friend who just knew she should text me today and check in. For some reason, I decided just to be truthful. “I’m sad,” I told her. “I’m really struggling. I’m a crying mess.”

Turns out, she was having a bad day, too. She told me that sometimes, uncensored journaling is the best thing. Actually, she called it the more aptly named “Verbal Vomit.” Guess what? I did it. I verbally vomited at my laptop for two aggressively incoherent pages. I’ll probably never go back and read it. But somehow, I feel better. It’s out of my system.

It made me want to compile a list of things I can do that usually make myself feel better. If you have a day that sucks, I hope you have a list like this for yourself. I also hope you have a very wise friend who knows just the right time to text or call you.

Things I Can Do to Make a Day Suck Less

  1. Journal (a.k.a. “Verbal Vomiting”)
  2. Take a nap (but limit your time—then get up, and get dressed)
  3. Walk in a beautiful place, even if you have to drive to get there (extra points if you take the dog)
  4. Bake something (bread, chocolate, or cinnamon result in the best aromatherapy)
  5. Watch a really sad movie and cry about that
  6. Smile—you’d be so pretty if you smiled more! (Just kidding—only smile if you want to. You’re beautiful no matter what.)
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Meat sweats: Or, too much of a good thing

IMG_0631There are a few smells I associate with summer: freshly mown grass; sunblock on a precious child’s skin, wet from swimming but warming in the sun; and hickory smoke curling off a crackling barbecue.

My husband grills old-school. He swears by his little Smokey Joe and refuses to upgrade to anything larger, and especially wouldn’t entertain the idea of a *gasp* gas grill. When he grills, it’s an event; that grill is filled up with meat, and the smell is sublime. He’ll walk back and forth between the kitchen and the backyard, grabbing tongs and hot pads and platters with a sly grin on his face; I watch him, trying to gauge whether the side dishes I’m preparing will be ready at the same time the smoky meat is deemed edible by the grill-master.

Once that meat is on the table, our stomachs are grumbling and we’ve been salivating long enough—I’m sure we look like a pack of wolves descending on all that protein. We like our sauces, too: I’m partial to Worcestershire, while my sons like various barbecue sauces ranging from mild to hot.

We’re not exactly a vision of self-control. Which is why, a few years ago, my husband half-jokingly pushed himself back from the table and said, “I think I have the meat sweats.” He wiped his brown for emphasis.

“What are meat sweats, Daddy?” my daughter asked.

“It’s when you have too much of this delicious meat and your body starts sweating it out!”

Oh, our decision to downsize to a smaller home was so much like the meat sweats! We lived in a big house and we had a good life, but … we had too much. We were consuming so much goodness, and in the end, it made us feel a little sick.

It’s hard to explain to kids about too much of a good thing, isn’t it? My kids always want more of a good thing. They don’t want a playdate that lasts all afternoon, they want a sleepover after the playdate. They don’t want just a few pieces of candy from the candy dish, they want all of it. If you have a good thing, why stop at just enough?

Our life was giving us the meat sweats. We had a beautiful home, but we laid awake worrying about the next mortgage payment. We had lots of nice things, but we spent too much time cleaning, sorting, maintaining, and organizing those things. It took time away from the things that were really important to us.

If I’m going to continue with the grilling analogy—and heck, why not?—our little house is the little plate we bring to dinner. It holds just enough of that delectable meat from the grill. We can fill up the plate, but that tiny plate is going to hold just the right amount—no more. We’ll get enough, but we won’t make ourselve sick from over-gorging.

Plus, if you’re not feeling sick from meat sweats, it means you might have room for a s’more …

Raise Your Tiny Glass to Simple Pleasures

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A Tiny Black Cow. Happy Birthday, Grandpa!

Grandpa was born in June. Maybe that’s why my memories of him seem to take place in summer. We probably often visited him at his birthday, or around Father’s Day. Grandpa was a writer and a storyteller. His loud, boisterous jokes and stories populated every family gathering.

Grandma and Grandpa’s little house on Poplar St. in West Bend, Wisconsin, didn’t have air conditioning. It would get hot, and my brother and I would retreat to the cool basement to play with the metal barn and plastic animals they kept in the closet.

“Kids! Time for a Black Cow!” he’d yell. We’d scramble up the stairs because we knew what that meant: A Black Cow was Grandpa’s signature drink: Root Beer from the bottle poured over vanilla ice cream.

I’d had Root Beer Floats before, and I suspect that Grandpa’s Black Cows had the exact same ingredients, but his Black Cows always tasted better. The root beer seemed darker and richer, the vanilla ice cream seemed creamier.

The thing is, Grandpa’s Black Cows were tiny. What I wanted was a huge frosted mug overflowing with frothy foam; what I got was a tiny juice glass. Just a dollop of ice cream went in each glass and Grandpa would dole out the root beer so as not to spill a drop. And there were no seconds.

They were too small. At least, to my kid brain, they were much, much too small. But I wasn’t going to argue with Grandpa. He would hand the thimble-sized Black Cow to each of us, and then say, “Now, don’t drink it all at once, or you’ll get a tummy ache.”

Was he being ironic? I could never tell.

I’m pretty sure the first time I had Grandpa’s tiny Black Cow, I drank it all in one gulp. (And no, I didn’t get a tummy ache.) But as I got older and wiser, I learned to sip it slowly. You know, put the tiny glass down between sips. Watch the cold drops of condensation run down the side of the tiny glass. Make it last.

I don’t know why Grandpa’s Black Cows were so small. I never asked him. Was it because he lived through the Depression? Was it because he was thin as a bean pole and never ate big portions of anything?

Grandpa’s been gone for quite a few years, but each year on his birthday, my siblings and I get an email from my Mom: “Today is Grandpa’s birthday. Did you celebrate with a Black Cow?”

This year on the 108th anniversary of his birth, I got the smallest glass out of my cabinet. I put just a dollop of ice cream, and poured the root beer carefully, listening to the wonderful fizzing sound as it hit the ice cream in the glass. I sat down and drank it. Slowly.

I think I get it now. Savor the sweet things, no matter how tiny. Drink them in without distractions. Consuming too much sweetness all at once causes a proverbial tummy ache.

Cheers to you, Grandpa.

Omit Needless Words. (Or: Why didn’t anyone tell me about Elements of Style?)

Part of my Mother’s Day was spent doing what I love best: reading outside on my sunny deck with the sounds of birds and lawnmowers and laughing children in the background. My book of choice this afternoon was Elements of Style, written by William Strunk and E.B. White. (Yes—the one and only E.B. White. The one who gave us Charlotte’s Web.) Strunk was White’s English professor in 1919 at Cornell University, and this little book was one he privately printed and passed out to all his students. It didn’t actually get published until after Strunk’s death (Strunk died in 1946; the book was published in 1959, with an introduction penned by White—since then, it’s never gone out of print). The tiny book is all of 85 pages, and as I work through it (slowly, thoughtfully chewing on each delicious morsel), each page uncovers another little gem about the craft of writing.

It’s page 23 that contains the best line of the whole book. It’s Strunk’s Rule #17 for principles of composition:

Omit needless words.

Oh the bold simplicity! Why am I only finding out about this book now? Strunk was a minimalist ahead of his time. He knew that good communication means stripping away the unnecessary. Since our great downsizing adventure began, I’ve learned the value of getting by with less. Little did I know I was ascribing to Strunk’s way of thinking. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying every day. As the story of my life unfolds, telling it in the best way means that I:

• Omit needless commitments

• Omit needless possessions

• Omit needless relationships

• Omit needless debt

As I read the book, this handbook for writers is a handbook for life, too: Communicate your purpose clearly. Get rid of the unnecessary. When telling your story, speak in specifics over generalities.

Omit. Then omit again so the good stuff can shine through.

 

Cabin in the Woods: Highly Recommended

Part Two of our family’s spring break was our best effort to get all “Little House on the Prairie” in 2017.

The first part of our spring break was a trip to Disney World with 176 teenagers. More about that here.

After the intensity of walking through the theme parks, checking on the well-being of our charges, and taking in all the sounds, sights, and smells of a very crowded tourist destination, we returned home and prepared for the second leg of spring break: a getaway to a cabin in the woods.

One of our favorite campgrounds is just over an hour drive from our house—perfect for a quick change of scene. Since it was still March, we knew tent camping probably was pushing it. So we rented one of the tiny cabins at the park—consisting of a front room with a table and a bed, and a back room with two bunk beds. It has electricity, but no running water.

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You may not believe me, but I did not have to force my children into the car. Maybe it’s because I gave them a healthy dose of the Ingalls family during bedtime reading at an early age. This excursion was only for 24 hours, but it was intentionally quiet, slow, and unplugged. We loaded up board games, books, sketch pads, and cozy pajamas—warm enough to facilitateIMG_2673 middle-of-the-night trips to the campground bathroom. We made a ceremony of heating the teakettle over a propane burner—a job our teenager enjoyed, shivering in his hoodie while ducks and geese circled in the water of the cold lake.

When you remove the regular day-to-day distractions, you start reawakening to things you forget to notice: the way water splashes around a wayward stick that’s fallen into a creek; the funny sound your brother makes when he sneezes; how good hot tea tastes when it’s all you have, and it doesn’t even matter that you forgot the sugar. At one point, I closed my eyes and tried to commit to memory the intoxicating sound of siblings laughing together as they played a card game. I don’t know if they’ll remember this particular evening, but I hope they remember how it felt.

At one point, an iPhone came out, and we, Ma and Pa, bristled. We made the stern, “We told you this trip was unplugged” faces. Turns out, the kids thought the perfect soundtrack for an evening in the cabin was some Beatles tunes. I had to agree. After all, even Pa Ingalls had his fiddle.

Disney World, You Make it Impossible for Me to Hate You

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Let me start off by saying we’re not Disney people. All I mean by that is that we’ve never gone to Disney World or Disney Land. We don’t buy Disney merchandise. A Disney vacation was just never something we put on our bucket list.

It’s not that we don’t like Disney, per se. They make great movies! (In fact, just last week I was weeping as I watched Beauty and the Beast on the silver screen.)

But, we are a band family, and my husband is a high school band director. And it just so happens that this year, the marching band took a trip over spring break … to Disney World.

My first (and possibly only) Disney World experience was riding in a caravan of buses loaded with 176 teenagers, a fleet of marching band uniforms, and band instruments of all shapes and sizes. I was ready for a vacation, and acting as a chaperone for the band trip would have to do.

It was great.

Spending three days at Disney, Epcot, then Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, made me appreciate the magic that Disney is selling us. As a trying-to-be minimalist, I reject the idea of buying branded merchandise and falling into the trap of consumerism. But Disney is selling something beyond mouse ears and just a product.

As we walked through the Magic Kingdom, I saw families making memories, all experiencing the same things. Taking photos together. Laughing. Being excited. Discovering things at the same time with the same (or similar) level of wonder (granted, Grandma can’t quite match the exuberance of a four-year-old in a Cinderella costume).

Disney is the furthest thing from minimalism.

And yet.

The general atmosphere of Disney World reminds me of what families are striving for day-to-day. We want to be together and to share common joys and experiences. We want to let happiness and joy to take over, and stifle the deafening noise of stress and self-doubt.

The best part? Seeing our 9 year-old daughter look at her Daddy like he was Prince Charming. He gave her the kingdom.

Three Things I Don’t Need (Since I Bought a Small House)

The greatest lesson the Cozy Cottage has taught us is the lesson of letting go. Letting go can be a joyful thing. Letting go feels like removing weight from your shoulders. Each day, we’re walking a little lighter and more freely in our little house. I’ve compiled a list of three things I can do without. I don’t need them! I’m free!

1.) Microwave To be honest, this one scared me. I mean, who doesn’t love the smell of microwave popcorn? Or the satisfaction of heating water for your tea right in the mug? And what about re-heating leftovers? No, I definitely wasn’t ready to give up the microwave. And still … it took up precious room on the counter. And how much did we really use it? So I carried it down to the basement. It wasn’t plugged in, but it sat down there, just in case. A week went by. One night, my son brought it up to heat up some water for hot chocolate. But then I showed him how to heat it in a saucepan on the stove. It didn’t take that much longer than the microwave. Mind. Blown. The microwave is gone now. I make popcorn on the stovetop. It’s delicious. I make tea in a kettle. And leftovers get re-heated in a pan. Except for pizza. Have you ever re-heated pizza in the oven? It’s heavenly. Try it. You’ll thank me.

2.) A Fence Our dog Baxter is an active guy. He loves to chase squirrels, rabbits, and squirrels. Oh, and squirrels. Our last house had a nice yard that was entirely fenced in. The Cozy Cottage does not. Before we moved in, we thought, “Of course, we’ll have to put up a fence for the dog.” Well, we haven’t, and we’re not going to. We love the way our back yard opens up to our neighbors. We’ve had so many wonderful conversations with the folks on either side of our house, and many of those conversations wouldn’t have happened if we had a fence. Also, we walk more. Baxter refuses to let us laze on the couch. When he’s gotta go, he’s gotta go! So we get up, and we take a walk. A lot of times, my husband and I walk together, and we have uninterrupted conversation! Or sometimes I’ll grab one of my kids, and I love hearing what’s going on in their world. Best of all, sometimes I walk alone. I have real thoughts, and I can finish them. I’m getting closer to solving the planet’s problems and world domination. Fence? No thanks.

3.) Master Suite In the near future, I’m going to devote an entire post to our “Master Bedroom,” because even I can’t believe in our bedroom setup. Our house has two bedrooms. That’s right! So it’s taken a little creativity to make sure everyone has a comfortable place to sleep. I used to think I wanted a giant bedroom with a sitting area, maybe even a couch and a desk, and an adjoining bathroom with two sinks so my darling husband could brush his teeth at his sink while I washed my face beside him in my sink. Our reality is nothing like that. Our Cozy Cottage has one bathroom, and sometimes it gets a little crazy, especially when five people are trying to get ready at the same time. But our little “master” bedroom is just enough for our queen-size bed, a lamp, and a little bookshelf. We have one closet and no dresser (but thanks to IKEA, our bed has four spacious drawers beneath it). You know what? My tiny bedroom is awesome! It’s pretty easy to keep neat, and there isn’t room for a lot of extra junk in there. Therefore, it’s a very relaxing place to be. When I go in there, I know I have a lamp, a book, comfy pillows, and my jammies. Turns out I don’t need the other stuff.

 

 

 

The Reading Porch

Living in a small house means a little less privacy. Since buying our little house, we’ve had to reconfigure the way we live together as a family. For instance, three of our kids now share one bedroom, so there is no such thing as anyone here being alone in my room.

Most evenings, we are in our living room, doing a variety of things: homework, catching up on shows, knitting, practicing instruments. I like the way our family time is more concentrated in the small house. In some ways, our physical proximity causes some obstacles: Can you turn off your music? I’m trying to read. Or, Can you stop practicing? I’m trying to listen to my show. But I’ve watched my kids get better at communicating with each other as they work around the problems that arise. They are getting better at offering compromises, and seeing things from the other’s point of view. This show ends at 8:30. Can you wait and practice when it’s over?

For this reason, the best room in the house is just off the living room, in the back. I call it the Reading Porch, because that’s what I like to do back here. But it’s also the Writing Porch, the Homework Porch, the Mommy-and-Daddy-Have-to-Have-a-Private-Conversation Porch. The light streams in during late afternoon. On summer evenings, the windows are all flung open to allow in the warm breeze and the sound of crickets and cicadas. In the Fall, we turn on our little heater and warm our feet and wrap ourselves in a blanket. The fact that it’s not really weatherized is what makes it special: Sometimes it’s too cold out there during winter. Then, we can only look through the sliding glass door and look at it longingly, hoping for a warmer day.

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There’s an autumn chill in the air today, but the Reading Porch is still warm and cozy, which is why I’m out here instead of doing adulty things like errands or laundry. Those things can wait. It’s quiet out here, and I have a few chapters I’ve been wanting to read …

Learning to Get Lost

Let’s get lost
Lost in each other’s arms
Let’s get lost
Let them send out alarms
And though they’ll think us rather rude
Let’s tell the world we’re in that crazy mood …

IMG_2677We weren’t really lost this weekend, but we did take the wrong subway. For the second time in as many months, my husband and I, like giggling teens, packed an overnight bag and got on a Metra commuter train for a weekend getaway in the city. And despite the fact that we love Chicago, and we consider it our city, we are just as suburban as one would expect. So when it was time to get on the “L” to reach the theatre where we had tickets to see my favorite comedian, Maria Bamford, we were a little out of sorts. Can we use our debit card at the ticket station? Do we even know how to transfer from the Blue Line to the Brown Line? Was it Division Street we wanted, or Diversey?

 

Our new house, the Cozy Cottage, is responsible for all of this. Moving to a smaller house has given us a smaller mortgage, and a smaller list of worries, but we are thrown into a big new world of re-learning how to do things. After so many years of putting off our own dating life in lieu of child-rearing and bill paying, Cozy Cottage has freed up some of our time. And so we find ourselves, holding hands, sweating in the August heat, laughing that we must look like tourists, studying the map, checking our GPS.  I’m not even ashamed that I stare up at the skyscrapers and gasp. I feel small and insignificant. I’m learning to get lost. I like it.

via Daily Prompt: Learning

Starting Over

I love calendars, and crisp new calendars with empty squares gets me feeling all tingly with the thought of new possibilities and open-ended adventures.  We are five days into a new year, and I’ve already pored over my calendars: all of them! I have iCal, Google Calendar, then the good ol’ paper calendar that hangs on my kitchen wall. We call that one “Command Central.” But all those open squares! I want to fill them with new experiences.

I’m taking a firm stance on New Year’s Resolutions—what are they, other than a checklist for my future failings? I won’t make any resolutions. Instead, I’m just taking my first step into 2016 feeling positive that something will happen. I just hope that whatever happens, I’m ready for it.

IMG_1347 All I know, is our family’s decision to move to a small house has been life-changing, which is what this blog is all about. The less space for living has allowed more space for living. It’s been eight months since we’ve moved to our little house of less than 1,000 square feet, and already, I can breathe easier. I feel better about the future, and find that my smaller house is opening doors for bigger adventure. As I write more about specific changes our family has undergone to declutter and pare down our belongings, I hope to connect with others on the same journey.  Even more, I hope to give encouragement to someone who is feeling overwhelmed right now and are ready to make a change. You can do it! It’s never too late to start over.