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When I was a very little girl, my mother taught me how to get up on a stool and microwave my own bottle. This began my lifelong love affair with quick and easy meals, of satisfying my hunger without the hassle of pre-planning or pre-heating. I became a master sandwich artist with a specialty: the triple decker grilled cheese. I found I enjoyed the science of baking, but the words “add to taste” made me quake in my apron. And somewhere along the line, I started telling myself that I couldn’t cook.

I would tell you with a straight face, “I can’t cook!” despite the fact that I made this, this, and this. I’d happily bake my little heart out, and would reluctantly declare that I could cook, but only with a recipe! Even armed with written instructions, I was only enthusiastic about cooking when I was acting as sous chef to someone else’s culinary genius. (And I really didn’t like having to be in control of making sure that all of the elements of the meal are hot and ready to eat at the same time.)

When my dear friend Anne came to visit, she discovered the raging depths of my cooking self doubt when she found out that I was afraid to make soup.

“You just add whatever you have into a pot, season it and let it heat up!” Anne exclaimed.

“But don’t you see?! That’s exactly how I ruin things — I over season!” I retorted. I was always ready to point out my flaws.

She just shook her head, and then we made soup. I watched to learn, but a little voice inside my head whispered, “Do you really think you can do this on your own?!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fast forward to some time in late 2012, when I made a conscious decision to stop being inadvertently negative, both toward myself and toward the world. All of the “I should’s” and “I don’t think I can’s” and “I can’t’s” had to go, including my thirty-year-old mantra of “I can’t cook.”

For someone who fears a primary role in the kitchen, I sure rip out, print and save a lot of recipes to try. The other day, I went through a stack of magazine recipes and tossed all of the ones that I didn’t think I could successfully substitute dairy products in, or that no longer looked yummy. Two filtered to the top — a Pioneer Woman recipe for Italian Chicken Soup (for which I’d previously purchased a specific type of pasta), and one for Turkey & Veggie Meatloaf Minis that was printed in People magazine.

The soup — doctored to not include jalapenos, heavy cream or Parmesan cheese — was excellent. I split the pot and traded with Mom for some homemade beef vegetable soup, and Mom reported that both she and Dad thought the soup was “excellent.” Inspired by that result (plus finding myself growing tired of eating from the same three homemade soups for lunch and dinner while I was sick), I decided to tackle the meatloaf recipe after work today. Without grocery shopping specifically for this recipe. Would this be a disaster? Or would I prove to myself once and for all that I can cook?

Okay, so here are the two recipes so that you can compare them. I emboldened the items in my recipe that were different from my source recipe.

Lisa Lillien’s Turkey & Veggie Meatloaf Minis

  • 1/2 cup grated onion
  • 7 tbsp. ketchup, divided
  • 1.25 lb. lean ground turkey
  • 3 cups shredded broccoli coleslaw, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fat-free liquid egg substitute
  • 1/2 cup quick-cooking oats
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. salt

Jen’s Turkey Quinoa-Rice Meatloaf Muffins

Mom was coming over for dinner, and she’s gluten free, so I couldn’t substitute bread crumbs (an ingredient I know Mom used to put in her meatloaf) for the quick-cooking oats. Searching through my pantry, I found one 90-second-microwave pouch of quinoa and whole grain brown rice. My experience with quinoa is that it definitely needs to be mixed with other foods or dressings that have flavor, because it’s pretty boring on its own. I figured the mix would blend well with the lean turkey, supporting the meatloaf flavor without trying to take over, and since it was a quick-cook package it wouldn’t need any additional preparation. Since neither Mom nor I has an egg allergy or a cholesterol issue, I went ahead and used an egg. And then after putting in the garlic and salt, I added a sprinkle of dried basil and about 3/4 tsp. of Mt. Elbert All-Purpose Seasoning that I bought on a trip to Colorado a while back.

I threw everything in a bowl, mixed it up WITH MY HANDS (Yes, Mom, I made a face while doing it!), and then plopped equal-sized portions of the meat mixture into a greased muffin pan. After I brushed the tops of each little mound of meat with the additional portion of ketchup, the pan went into the oven, which had been pre-heated to 350 degrees. 35 minutes later the meatloaf muffins were ready to join some mixed veggies on a plate.

“Well,” I looked at my mother. “It’ll either be good or it won’t. If it’s just a little bit not good, I have more ketchup. If it’s a lot not good, at least Dad left you with leftovers at home!”

I was busy getting situated and setting up the laptop to the first episode of Season 3 of Downton Abbey, so Mom took the first bite. “It’s good!” she declared. And a minute later, I had to agree — it was good! Yummy, in fact. And best of all, each muffin was only 120 calories!

“Can I take some with me to work for lunch tomorrow?”

“Absolutely, Mom.”

Nature’s call

One of the things I’m always thinking about doing is going outdoors on a nice day for the sole purpose of getting comfortable somewhere and reading for a while. Perhaps taking a little nap, or just listening and watching what’s going on around me. Sometimes I manage to make time for this type of behavior when I’m camping, but it’s something I enjoy doing and would like to build some of that type of entertainment into my local life.

I’ve been sick for two weeks. Today was my last day staying home, and my only goals for the day were to a) walk to the dumpster, b) walk to the mailbox, and c) drive to the library. I succeeded in all three, and after picking up my library books I decided to rip a page out of my sister’s play book: I drove down to historic St. Mary’s City and wandered down to the river, all by myself. I found a picnic table in the weak January sunshine, and spent a half an hour perusing through a book of poetry. I don’t often read poems; I find that I don’t “get” most of them. However, I figure that for me, poetry is kind of like trying foods that you think you don’t like: I have to re-try them every once in a while just to make sure my stance on them hasn’t changed.

So there’s me, sitting quietly and trying to make sense of the not-at-all-concrete imagery, when all of the sudden the sound of the waves breaking on the rocky shore became so loud I couldn’t hear the words in my mind. I looked up — obviously I’d completely missed hearing a boat pass by, but the change in the cadence and pitch of the water smacking the land was something I could not ignore.

“How absurd. I must really be oblivious!” I thought. “I wasn’t that absorbed in the poem, was I?!”

Yet as I watched the shoreline the sound grew and then slaked off, only to grow again. Something about the way that the boat pressed the water into that angle of pebbles and sand had created this noisy, rolling, organic crunch of sound that demanded to be heard.

I reached for my cell phone in order to catch a bit of it on film, but like an actress with stage fright, the drama ceased the minute I pressed RECORD. What I was able to catch to remember this moment — where the earth and sea worked together to demand my attention — was simply a rather benign vignette of nature demonstrating surround sound: waves reaching in from the left and wiping a whoosh of sound over to the right.

Closing the book and placing it in the pocket of my sweatshirt, I answered nature’s call by giving it my full attention. And within my listening, I felt heard.

1990

Dawn Christmas1990 Dawn_Jen Christmas1990

A yellow lab puppy. Dawn was the darkest yellow female puppy with the most extra skin on her furry little body, one of eleven from an accidental litter between our mostly black lab mutt, Kelly, and our registered yellow lab, Butch.

I was incredibly sick with the flu that year, and Mom had to force me out of my bedroom and onto the couch. I was wearing my beloved yellow nightshirt that Mom desperately wanted me to throw away, and I think it was one of the few Christmases in middle and high school where I didn’t wash my face and brush my teeth before joining the family. Basically, I was too sick to care if my parents took pictures of me looking a mess.

As I took my place on the couch and wrapped myself up in a blanket, all growly and congested, Mom cheerfully tried to get me something to drink while Dad disappeared. Dad reappeared a short while later, dumped a squirming and affectionate puppy in my lap and growled, “Merry Christmas” at me before walking away. I hadn’t believed that I would get to keep a puppy from the litter… Kelly was Dad’s dog and Butch was officially my sister Jaci’s, and I knew Dad didn’t want three dogs (period). So to be freely given the puppy I’d been harboring not-so-secret desires of stealing was a true Christmas miracle and surprise.

2012

Mirror-before Mirror

A unique, handmade wooden mirror made by Dave Sauer of Sauer Wood Designs.

Back in November, I drove to Asheville to hang out with my sister for a weekend. She was excited as she drove me to meet her friend Dave, and then to a local store that sells specialty wood. We walked through what was basically a large garage full of planks, boards, branches and stumps, pointing out the interesting bits and pieces with character. Eventually we checked out with two boards — a piece of apple that we were both in love with but weren’t sure about, and a backup piece that was made out of an extremely lightweight wood. We drove both pieces back to Dave’s house, and in his wood shop his artist’s eye immediately began assessing our treasures.

The lightweight piece he’d actually noticed on his last trip, and said he thought it would make a good bench. The apple he passed through the band saw and the table saw, and then sent through the planer several times. I walked away with only an idea of what the final product would look like, but having a small background in woodworking myself, it was strangely satisfying to have been a part of that initial process to select the wood and see it ripped down into its final shape.

I was at my house, sick and trying to avoid the family, when Jaci stopped by to deliver the masterpiece: my Christmas 2012/Birthday 2013 present. It is more beautiful in person than I could start to explain! Dave certainly has an eye for bringing out the best in a piece of wood, and after having seen several pieces on display in his house I knew on a level that I could trust his judgment when it came to putting my mirror together. When I saw the final product, I had no doubt that he had yielded its full potential. It’s a beautiful statement piece that will forever remind me of my awesome sister, Asheville, and fire pits! (I also like the fact that the overlay wood is apple, my favorite fruit which I am now allergic to and can’t eat.)

I’m not sure that I can say this theory has been accurately tested with only two examples. Perhaps there are other people out there in the universe who have similar stories? I’m not quite positive that I want to go through another holiday season of feeling like an unwashed honey badger with a hangover and a smoker’s cough… but if someone wants to put an actual horse + board at a local stable on the line, I might consider it. *wink*

When you’re sick, if you care about your friends, family and co-workers at all, you shut yourself and your contagion in your home and promise not to infect everyone you care about with your germs. You cough, hack, sneeze and wheeze, shiver and boil all by yourself, reaching out every now and again via Twitter, Facebook, text or the ancient medium of the telephone to contact people and let them know you’re still alive. And, could someone please deliver Popsicles and orange juice to your doorstep?

One thing being sick gives you, is the uninterrupted time to catch up on certain hobbies and entertainments that usually get pushed into the far corners of your available moments, competing against one another for your attention before you fall asleep, exhausted, at the end of another day: Television. Movies. BOOKS.

Ah, books. Glorious pages of imaginable fantasy, fiction, mystery and horror! I have a thriving “to read” list that exists within my Goodreads account, but at the end of each year I like to peruse the Goodreads Choice Awards, adding anything that sounds promising, interesting, different into my queue. Last year, some of the best books I read were ones that I found through a perusal of the Choice Awards finalists for 2011: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan, and The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta.

Catching a Christmas bug gave me the opportunity to page through the Choice Awards finalists (and winners) for 2012, and to add a number of new books to my “to read” list. After the many successful stolen titles from last year’s awards, I’m very excited and am looking forward to picking through this year’s finds.

First up, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn. I finished that one in about three hours this morning over a long breakfast-on-the-couch, nursing a glass of orange juice and clutching a box of tissues. It was a great little satire that pays homage to the English language in a unique way. Classified as a young adult book, this volume should not deter adult readers — it’s packed front to back with voluptuous, meaty words that will have you reaching for your dictionary, just as finishing it will make you want to sit down and practice the art of writing a letter again.

Right before Ella Minnow Pea, I spent the day in bed immersed in the Kindle pages of Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, trying to keep my mind occupied between the 4-6 hour time frame in which I could take more Tylenol for the body aches. Swan Song is a big novel about the destruction — and salvation — of the world. McCammon weaves a rich story from the very separate stories of disparate characters, slowly drawing them together in the years after the POTUS gives the word to start World War III, unleashing all of the United States’ nuclear power while the states absorb the missiles and bombs of other nations.

The scene McCammon paints is gruesome: a devastating portrait of a world torn apart at the seams, riddled with radiation poisoning, and the remnants of humanity that struggle on. It is a dark portrait filled with death and evil, but one that finds its own light within a few individuals whose inside faces are good and valiant. Hope does find a foothold within the devastated Earth — it is brought about by a wrestler, a little girl, and a homeless woman. Swan Song is a big book that doesn’t drag an inch. There are enough characters for McCammon to keep moving between, but not so many (Hello, I’m talking to you, Mr. G. R. R. Martin) that you begin to fear keeping their individual stories clear in your mind. Given the opportunity and time to read the whole thing, it goes by pretty quickly; while in bed, I managed to get from 35% to 100% completion in a little less than a day.

I have two more books in hand to hopefully get me through the last remnants of this damned cold. On one hand, I’m enjoying the unfettered reading time. On the other, I’m anxious to spend some of this holiday with my family instead of alone, to hug my sister and my fur-nieces, to have our own little belated Christmas, and to celebrate my Mom’s birthday on January first. To sum up:

Dear Christmas Cold,
Please, pretty please, take these three full days of respite from doing anything at all (save eating, sleeping and reading) and give me back the remaining two days of holiday! What it really comes down to is that I can’t imagine not starting 2013 off by celebrating Mom’s birthday with family and friends.
Thanks for your consideration in this matter.
Your Host, Jennifer

The reader in me

Solitude-SLawIn April 2011, I was browsing through a few favorite shops on Etsy and I stumbled across an ACEO (which stands for “Art Cards Editions and Originals”) by one of my favorite artists, Stephanie Phi-Mun Law. It was entitled simply, Solitude, and featured a woman reclining against a tree on a grassy hillock, reading a book.

This image resonated with me intellectually and emotionally, and I immediately added it to my cart and purchased it before it could be sold to someone else. Framed, it now resides on a small side table in my living room, next to a comfortable reading chair.

Whenever I glance at this tiny piece of art, I’m reminded of how peaceful, exciting and fulfilling it is to sit down with a good book and let its language drown out everything else. There is nothing I love better than to be immersed in a well-told story, whether it be written on a page or brought to me in two-dimensional color on a screen. I am forever in search of the next tale that will transport me to another world, a different place, a time apart from now.

Not only do I keep track of my Paper Vacations here at OneWandering, but I can also be found over at Goodreads, which is where I archive all of my book reviews. Each year, Goodreads holds a Reading Challenge where you set a goal to read a certain number of books within the calendar year.

In 2011, I set a goal for 80 books and completed it! However, somewhere between the web application and the iPhone app, lost in the dregs of the interwebs, one of the entries for a book read in 2011 got amended right before December 31  — it no longer showed that I had completed reading it. I managed to find the errant entry and fix it, but I never received my Reading Challenge badge. (Boo!)

Finishing 80 books definitely stretched me last year… towards the end I was purposefully choosing books that were less than 400 pages and I was reading at work during my lunch breaks. I knew that in 2012 I wanted to tackle the Game of Thrones series, which would entail subjecting myself to five volumes (each with a significant number of pages), so I set my goal a bit lower: 50 books. Like the reclining woman in Solitude, I wanted to give myself enough time to enjoy every page, rather than to race the calendar with a frantic shuffle of real and electronic pages.

This morning over breakfast I read the first few chapters of book number 61: Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon. It’s another “big” book, weighing in at well over 850 pages both in print and on the Kindle. Will I finish it in the next six days so it counts toward my 2012 challenge? I probably won’t even attempt it. 60 is a perfectly respectable number, and I’ve managed to beat my goal by 10 books as well as earn my 2012 Reading Challenge badge.

Now, what goal to set for 2013?!

Truth-seeker

“You have a lot of work to do, and we’ve only just started today,” she said.

“I know,” I thought to myself. “I just don’t think I want to do the work with YOU.”

And that was how I ended my fourth counseling appointment: struggling to put to words why I found myself evading this woman’s attempts to get me to open up and talk. Why I consistently shut her out. My best guess? She reminds me of a family member with whom I would never talk to about the gritty stuff, the honest stuff, the stuff that hurts. So I asked for a referral to a different counselor and I’m waiting to hear back.

In the meantime, I’ve started thinking about where I am and where I’d like to be. And I realized that maybe I am still figuring out who I am, trying to decipher that out from the white noise of all of those characteristics and interests that I admire in my friends and want to try, to incorporate, to emulate.

Recently I spent a week in Old Town Alexandria for work, and during those four days I found myself feeling INTERESTED and INTERESTING. Broken away from the routine of job-house-gym, I picked up newspapers and set my iPhone to the task of finding me new and interesting places to eat. I worked out, but only after going to the hotel lobby and tasting a free glass of wine. I sparked up a conversation with a random person and her cute little dog during the doggy happy hour in the courtyard.

Then I came home, and the sameness settled back over me like a comfortable house coat that you’re ashamed to let anyone else see. I immediately began to feel a little dull, dimmed, and dare I say it? Boring.

I have a lot of work to do. I have to figure out how to bring the “Away Jen” back home, and I figure part of doing that might be to shake things up a bit. There’s a variety of things that I’d like to try or re-attempt, like a dancing class (my sister is taking belly dancing and hip hop), or knitting (I have to finish a project I started last year!). But these solutions feel borrowed and not original to my own self.

So, I referred to my Ultimate To-Do List and found that something that had been tickling the back of my mind was actually right there, on the screen, staring back at me: #18. Take singing lessons, then overcome the fear of stagefright by singing in public at a karaoke bar.

Why singing lessons? Well, I joined chorus in 8th grade and continued singing in high school, where I was a member of the Great Mills High School Chamber Singers. However, I never really learned how to read music, I always wanted to be within earshot of someone else who was singing my part, and I never learned to harmonize.

Yesterday I spent a few minutes doing a quick Google search, and I think I found a possible singing instructor in my local area. And if that doesn’t pan out, I plan to walk into the local music store and see if they know of anyone. I’m both excited, because this feels like something I genuinely want for myself with no outside influences, but I’m also a bit terrified.

Singing out loud. In front of people. Without judging myself into silence? I have a lot of work to do.

Without you

18 laps. Half of a mile.

But you’re not here to talk to during our mid-mile break, and I can feel my emotions threatening to become tangible, tears to join the streams of water running down my face as I pull myself out of the pool.

WHY ARE YOU NOT HERE?! I want to scream.

I MISS YOU SO MUCH! I want to wrap my arms around my body and sob into a hot shower.

COME OUT AND SWIM WITH ME! I want to bargain with the gods.

After you died, I did a pretty good job of keeping to our schedule, swimming twice a week for at least an hour or a mile. As long as I didn’t falter, I was strong. Then I got sick, and after two and a half months without my twice weekly dose of chlorinated therapy, I forgot how to be brave.

Our routine was a comfort, something reliable, a consistent support through the worst four months of my life. And I still needed our routine when I couldn’t abide by our planned and preferred exercise because of my health; I needed it but couldn’t go. The worst still wasn’t over. And a part of me unraveled, crumbled, dissolved.

Without swimming, I’ve been like that person in the desert who hallucinates a glass of water because they need it so much. But I also dreaded the reality of confronting my mirage, of disrupting the vision and discovering the aggravation of sand instead of the cool comfort of water.

Tomorrow marks seven months without you.

So you see, I had to get back in the pool; I’ve been cleared for weeks, but keep talking myself out of going. One more day. What if I start next week? Oops, my ears are hurting again. I’ll go after I spend two weekends installing laminate floors in my house. Just one more day.

You were the one to laugh at me for taking forever to get the rest of my body into the pool when the water was cold. You were the one to split the driving duties, to send me an e-mail, “Hey, we still on for swimming today?” You were the one I looked forward to seeing, to chatting with as we walked to the locker room, to figuring out where we’d go to eat to refuel after our workout.

You taught me that swimming laps could be the best meditation, a remedy to a bad day, an opportunity to share a smile. Without the rhythm of our routine, how was I supposed to get myself to the pool? In the pool? To the wall and back?

Somehow, I convinced myself that there were no more excuses. I parked the car and walked into the building. I located an empty lane. Quickly adjusting my goggles over my eyes, I let my entire body slip into the cool water. I came up once, set my watch, took a breath and pushed off the wall.

One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe. One, two, three, breathe.

I can do this without you. (I just wish I didn’t have to.)