carving a comfort zone

comfort zone - heirloom mothering
Thanksgiving (I think?), c. 1974ish. Mom with her mother, seven siblings, and two sibling-in-laws

Have you seen Home for the Holidays? It has become our annual tradition to watch it sometime the week of Thanksgiving. Just like the best family reunions, the film is neither totally comedy nor drama. It describes complicated family relationships with varying precision and dizzying caricature (it’s based on this essay). Though the aunt who wears a fruit loop necklace might seem on the surface too zany or improbable, I love the cheeky nod to how reunions can make you feel loved and trapped, bearing credible witness to the search for how you could be related to the people you love but might not like so much.

I believe there’s a dark thread running through the fabric of any family celebration, no matter how perfectly merry and bright it appears. If I pull the thread enough, it unravels, displaying the holes in my joy, such as my concerns over doing what is right and my insistence on making sure everyone is comfortable above all else.

I used to attempt to sew up these holes. When awkward pauses or disagreements presented themselves in conversation, I interjected. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I even pinpointed how difficult it has been for me to allow others to be subjected to unpleasant experiences. The older I get, the more I see we can’t spare people from suffering, and maybe we shouldn’t try. It could be that a little suffering goes a long way to teaching a lesson, and if I intervene, I rob the sufferer of their due education.

Wise philosophers, spiritual or otherwise, point out with certainty that suffering happens because of desire. To end suffering, you must stop wanting. Whenever I am suffering, I try to pick apart why this dictum cannot be true, why my suffering must be different. Eventually I come back around to the idea that we suffer when confronted with our lack of control. But our sense of control is an illusion to begin with; when I remember the illusion, I can begin the difficult task of letting go. “Just float,” as Holly Hunter says.

These days I see the beauty in leaving our messes the way they are. I make room in my comfort zone for pain amidst the pleasure. At my best, I neither unravel nor mend. How about you? How do you feel about suffering and family relationships? Are you gearing up for a Thanksgiving gathering this week? Just remember what Robert Frost wrote: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And if your aunt wears a necklace made of fruit loops, I hope you’ll tell me all about it. I’ll pull up a chair and cut you a slice of heaven.

I’ll leave you last with this clip of an old McSweeney’s: “Everyone talks about the bickering relatives and the burnt yams, but few talk about taking a weekday to eat and nap and gossip with a sibling about another sibling. No one owns it. No focus group studies it. Just you and a mostly empty bowl of stuffing and no clean utensils, so use your fingers already.”

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!
xoxo, j

Author’s note: Pieces of this post appeared in an earlier blog post from 2011.

gerunding {+ Cuban black bean soup}

It seems I am always in the middle of something. Reading. Knitting. Cooking. Writing. Editing. Eating. I like to have lots going on. A recent -ing I’m doing is volunteering with a local project to feed kids who go hungry when school is not in session. I offered my public health business planning services, and so far the experience is gratifying, challenging, rewarding, and all-consuming, the very best gerunds a volunteer project can offer. Although the operations are focused on offering boxes full of fresh food, I haven’t taken part yet in that side of the process. I figure someone has to clear brush upstream so our boat can sail on when we reach that wild unknown future, so I’m keeping my focus on the horizon.

I chose to jump into this project now because I’ve finally got the time to give; pretty soon I’ll be needing a new raison d’être. Maybe I should have had the time last year, especially since I cut down on doula-ing, but kindergarten was a baffling jump from pajamas to the big leagues. It was like trying to climb out of a ball pit while wearing roller skates. And then like magic, my morning calendar became wide-open this fall with kid #2 in pre-k, so I shopped around for a valuable way to spend my newfound bounty of hours. I do a lot of writing, of course, but it’s a self-focused activity, and I get tired of being in my own head. When I turn my attention to this project, I jump into the flow of a task that will accept as much effort as I have to offer. It’s a rabbit hole of usefulness.

Have you heard of the concept of filling each other’s buckets? Vivi learned about this idea at school, and I borrowed a book from the library to fill the gap between what she learned and what little I knew about it. Now I use the bucket analogy to explain many scenarios from tattle-tales to compliments. I even see it as a useful exercise for my adult brain and find myself picturing my bucket filling and emptying as I hold open a door for someone or am honked at in traffic. Actually, in that latter vision, I see myself pouring my bucket on the honker’s head, which may not be what the author intended.

This hunger project fills my bucket with gratitude for all the ways I’m cared for in my life. As a doula, I see the types of care that are essential to making people feel supported, particularly in times of stress. Their need for food should be met, of course, but what about the next meal? Humans seek predictability and find relief of knowing we will be granted future sustenance; we are striving in this organization to meet a goal of sustainability. People want support, but we also long to be understood, to be valued, and to be useful. This project gives me outlets for all of these basic drives, and I hope part of our long-term strategy will be focused on giving our community those outlets as well.

I haven’t shared a recipe here in a while, and since I’ve been focused in this post on comfort, I knew just what I wanted to share. If I had to pick a food that I find both comforting and that can be shared among big group, this Cuban black bean soup would be at the top of the list. My favorite meal in Miami, apart from Cuban sandwiches, is black bean soup. It is velvety and smoky and fills you with warmth. And did I mention it’s easy?

This recipe was adapted from The Kitchn. I made few changes to the ingredients, just more salt and spices, but I did change the cooking method. I much prefer cooking it in the oven than on the stove top. The taste is just as good, you don’t have to worry about scorching the bottom of your pot (good news if you’re as easily distracted as I am), and you can leave the house if need be.

Cuban Black Bean Soup

Serves 8

1 pound dried black beans (a must; I would not make this with canned beans)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 ham bone or smoked ham hock
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tsp. to 1 Tbs. salt
1 tsp. each of ground: cumin, Smoked paprika, and black pepper
1/3 cup white or cider vinegar (optional)

To garnish:
Sour cream
1. The night before cooking the soup, rinse beans, removing rocks and ugly beans. Place beans in a Dutch oven or soup pot and cover with plenty of cold water. Soak overnight.

2. In the morning, preheat the oven to 300ºF. Drain the water and refill the pot until the water is one inch above the beans. Stir in the chopped veggies, garlic, ham hock, salt and pepper, spices, and olive oil. Add 2 teaspoons salt and black pepper.

3. Bring to a boil over high heat. Skim foam, reduce heat to low, and cover. Bake in the preheated oven for 4 to 5 hours. Check and stir every 2 hours or so until the beans have broken down to create a creamy, thick soup; the soup should coat the back of a spoon.

4. Taste soup and add salt as needed (mine needed at least another teaspoon). Remove the ham bones/hock and any fat and break up any large pieces of ham with a fork. (I’m sure Cubans would tell me this next part is not optional, but I’ve made it both and without vinegar and like each version. If you don’t use vinegar, be sure to serve the soup with vinegar or hot sauce on the side). Stir in the vinegar and simmer for an additional 15 minutes, uncovered.

5. Serve by itself or over rice and garnish with sour cream. I like to freeze what we don’t eat in QT mason jars. It reheats beautifully.


practicing my hum and swoop

perfecting the hum and swoop - heirloom mothering
I have no reason to include it, but I happened upon this pic from 2012 and can’t get over the cuteness. Hug your babies, y’all.

(Note: If you saw an earlier version of this post a while back, my apologies. I had some technical difficulties with it)

My writing rituals come and go. I once got hooked on a webcam of baby hummingbirds my uncle showed me (to my dismay, it has since been taken down). When I sat down to write, I checked on those scrawny, ugly baby birds, and I came to see them as mine. What I found most mesmerizing about that webcam scene was how the mother hummingbird parented. Mama bird zoomed off in a hurry to somewhere–gathering nectar, probably. She droned back in a flash, so fast in fact, I couldn’t even see her return trip. She fed the delicate liquid into their mouths while their lazy heads with still-closed eyes flopped around. Then she’d push the babies back down with her feet as she turned in circles and made herself comfortable on top of them to keep watch. What a mom!

As if divining my recent online birdwatching, Children & Nature Network wrote about how we can parent more like hummingbirds. I shared theirs and other tips for how you can raise free-range kids in an article at Natural Parents Network last week. I appreciated one of the commenters, who wrote: “…there’s room to disagree on which specific practices are unsafe for which children, but…the bigger problem is neighbors calling police or CPS rather than asking children and parents if they need help or expressing their concerns to them.” Thank you, Crunchy Con Mom, for elucidating my point.

I spend most of my writing time in a local coffee shop now. But in a way, it’s a similar background scene to the hummingbird webcam. I love being amidst all the humming busyness of the townspeople. That din is becoming my writing soundtrack, and it doesn’t hurt that they serve a wicked awesome ginger scone there.

AND, that place is all about me; when I’m there, I can fall into a flow where things like laundry and Instagram don’t exist. Pilates is that way too, but sort of in an opposite way. At the coffee shop, I am happy and feeling quite smug for having chosen such a great location to write. When I’m in Pilates (doing Pilates? Pilates-ing?), I’m wondering what kind of an idiot chooses such a punishing activity like Pilates for a Monday morning. But it must be good because I keep coming back for more.

I hope y’all do something special this week that’s just for you, even if it hurts a little bit. And give your veterans a hug from me.
xoxo j

this is thirty-five

My kids cannot conceive of how old I am. No matter how often I answer repeated questions about my age, my preschooler asks again, “You’re fifteen, right?” “No, I’m thirty-five,” I correct her. She stares at me, pausing a beat too long. She presumably wonders if I am about to keel over at any second. Perhaps she hopes to recognize the glint of a joke in my eyes, but eventually she realizes I am serious. She resumes playing, a little disappointed I am so clearly past my prime.

It’s the same look they give me when I’d rather do dishes than watch morning cartoons or when I yawn during the climax of Frozen. It’s the skeptical look I get from my crinkle-nosed first grader when she asks, “How do you know who the Beatles are?” I understand the fickle nature of coolness, but recently I’ve learned I don’t get to decide if I’m cool. I may believe I’m cool, but my opinion matters not. They are the deciders. Well, the verdict is in, folks, and the outlook is not good. I am not cool. I’m sorry to have to tell you that you aren’t cool either. But you knew that already.

Here’s a thing. I worked at summer camp this year. They do not use the word cool. Like hot and the cat’s pajamas and fly and phat and sweet, cool is dead. Oh, and it’s not pot any more, NEVER say pot unless you want to receive a guffaw; it’s weed. Now you wonder why I discussed marijuana at camp. But anyway. These kids (that I call a 20-year-old “kid” is a dead giveaway of my coolness) use words like swag and swerve and shade and coral, words I DON’T EVEN KNOW HOW TO USE IN A SENTENCE. If you’re lucky, they’ll say sick or chill, words that existed in their current usage prior to 2010.

Eight extra years separate my second daughter and me than my mom and me, yet I remember thinking my mom was definitely old when I was a kid (sorry Mom). I can only guess at the horror of my children’s image of me. Speaking of my mom, she asked me twice if I am indeed turning thirty-five (?! and 0_o were implied). She wanted to know if this age means something to me.

Most times my age doesn’t mean much. I turned thirty without a bucket list in sight. I didn’t mind leaving behind my twenties because I felt stronger and more capable, surer of myself. But turning thirty-five does mean something to me. Some time ago, it was my age of no return, the point at which I decided (back when I knew everything) that I would absolutely be done having children. At twenty, thirty-five seemed a lifetime away. A distant line in the sand.

Now here I am, turning thirty-five this week. The line is up close and personal.

And what is thirty-five like? I’m content right here, third child or not. I happily pass the torch of drawing lines in the sand onto the next generation. Milestones pop up over the past few years comprising a different kind of list; it’s not a bucket list, but more of a Rainman-style tally sheet of the hallmarks of this age. Lindsey Mead’s post inspired me to write about this new age.

So, here goes. Thirty-five is…

  • Advanced maternal age. (…shudder…)
  • Knowing my periodontist didn’t mean anything when he said, “I’m surprised someone of your age hasn’t had this procedure yet,” but feeling miffed about the phrase anyway.
  • Realizing my first grader is closer in age to that 20-year-old counselor than I am (how adorable is that?).
  • Taking shorter showers with less water pressure because of the constant toilet flushing or the clothes or dishes washing, or most likely a combination of all three.
  • Looking in the mirror and realizing no matter how I style or cut it, my hair is never going to look like it did when I was twenty-five. But it is also no longer caring. Thirty-five is feeling gratitude for having hair at all.
  • Taking up Pilates and being pleasantly surprised that my body is stronger than I thought it could be.
  • Finally refusing the labels others hoist on me and accepting the ones I have been reluctant to give myself. I am a writer. I am not cool.
  • Loving the everydayness of my life: brushing cobwebs off the snow boots to see if they still fit, violin practice, feeding the fish, the perpetual shopping for undershirts, and do we know the Richardsons.
  • Listening with patience as older people who walk by tell me to appreciate my children, but secretly knowing I can’t appreciate them any more than I do. It is bittersweet to realize they will grow up, even as I wish I could stop time.
  • Drinking coffee and eating chocolate (dark + generous sprinkle of salt, almonds, or spice), but never after 5pm.
  • Feeling a state of inner calm resulting from letting go of old demons, struggles, mistakes, clothes, and tchotchkes.
  • Being a fluent, if not native, speaker of the inner language of my husband’s family.
  • Homemade granola and store-bought doughnuts.
  • Giving up old dreams to pursue new dreams.
  • Finally parting with the baby stuff.
  • No more wonderbras.

More than any age yet, thirty-five is fleeting. When I told Nate that I wrote about what it’s like to be thirty-five, he asked, “How would you know?” Because, I thought, next time I look up I’ll be thirty-six. You know?

this is 35 - heirloom mothering