3 Things I’ve Learned From Nora Ephron Recently

A high school friend got married the weekend before last, which was the perfect excuse for me to drive to my hometown of Shady Grove for a few days.  I love everything about going home, from sleeping in the twin bed of my childhood to eating my dad’s ever-perfecting sourdough toast for breakfast, to partaking in miscellaneous projects with my parents (and siblings, if they are home), to the now familiar drive from Providence to south-central Pennsylvania. 

There are many times when I wish I lived closer to Shady Grove because proximity would enable me to enjoy all the benefits of home – particularly quality time with my family of origin —more often than I currently do, but taken in and of itself, I don’t mind the driving distance.  It’s actually an aspect of going home to which I look forward.  With a thermos of coffee, a stack of audio books, the heat turned up, and a queue of podcasts, I find the drive comforting, cozy and entertaining. 

On this most recent drive, I listened to the second half of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and an episode of each of my favorite podcasts (Happier and Jesuitical) on the way to Shady Grove, and a few more podcast episodes and Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman on the way back to Providence. 

It would be an understatement to say that my return drive to Rhode Island was enjoyable.  I loved every single word of Ephron’s collection of essays.  She’s a witty and hysterical writer, one of the funniest I’ve encountered, and the audio version of her book was made even better by the fact that it was read by Queen Nora herself.  Naturally, she knew just which words to emphasize, where to whisper and when to pause dramatically.

I’m on a Nora Ephron kick, now, and I’m learning things in addition to laughing my head off.  Here are three lessons I’m taking away from her fantastic work:

1). The dinner party rule of four: in her essay “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir,” Ephron chronicles the cookbooks and chefs who influenced her personal cooking and hosting style, and she pays special tribute to Lee Bailey.  She writes:

The most important thing that I learned from Lee was something I call the Rule of Four. Most people serve three things for dinner — some sort of meat, some sort of starch, and some sort of vegetable — but Lee always served four. And the fourth thing was always unexpected, like those crab apples. A casserole of lima beans and pears cooked for hours with brown sugar and molasses. Peaches with cayenne pepper. Sliced tomatoes with honey. Biscuits. Savory bread pudding. Spoon bread. Whatever it was, that fourth thing seemed to have an almost magical effect on the eating process. You never got tired of the food because there was always another taste on the plate that seemed simultaneously to match it and contradict it. You could go from taste to taste; you could mix a little of this with a little of that. And when you finished eating, you always wanted more, so that you could go from taste to taste all over again.

There’s something so charming about this Rule, isn’t there?  It’s both simple and playful, and – unlike a complicated recipe or an elegant environment – easy for someone like me to adopt. 

2). The worst possible thing could turn out not to be the worst possible thing:  In You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan’s character Kathleen is devastated when the corporate chain Fox Books drives her small children’s bookstore – The Shop Around the Corner – out of business.  Why wouldn’t she be?  Being forced to close doors is every small business owner’s worst nightmare.  But closing these doors ends up opening a different set of doors for Kathleen.  No, I’m not talking about the relationship she develops with Mr. Fox himself; she begins writing children’s books.  This turn of events might be high on the cheesiness scale, but I do think it illustrates a true point: we don’t know what life holds, and staying hopeful and open in the face of adversity could lead to new and exciting opportunities.

3). The familiar is funny and interesting: “Write what you know” is an age old piece of advice that probably anyone who has ever written anything has heard.  Cliche as the advice may be, Nora Ephron proves that it’s sound.  She writes about the contents of her purse, her apartment building, her love-hate relationship with beauty products, parenting and food.  There is nothing – absolutely nothing – exceptional about these topics, but Ephron succeeds in crafting superb essays about them because she pays close attention to the details, and because she is so honest and open.  This is a realization worth keeping in mind, for both writing endeavors and being a good conversationalist!

Photo by Daniela Cuevas on Unsplash

People I used to be

“I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” – Joan Didion

I have an aunt who loves beautiful things — paintings and music and furniture and even well-plated food — in an exceptional kind of way.  Like my dad and their other eleven siblings, she has both an eye for art and an artistic streak herself, and this is evident in everything from the way she speaks to the flair with which she dresses to how she sips a glass of wine.  Time with my aunt is colorful, vivid, passion-filled and abounding with ideas and inspiration.  She seeks beauty whole-heartedly, and when she finds it, she reaches for it — to hold it, to relish it, and if at all possible, to take it home with her. 

In her love of beauty, my aunt has filled her home to overflowing with paintings and tiles and clothing and dishes and sculpture and art books.  And as her shelves, closets, counter tops and cupboards have runneth over, the elegance of each individual item has been lost to clutter and distraction. 

With her deep appreciation for exquisite design, color and texture, it is easy to understand my aunt’s longing to hold on to item after item.  But too much of a good thing is precisely that: too much.  This is true when regarding objects, and it’s true in other areas of life as well.

Personally, I have a hard time letting go of vocational aspirations.  I find working in Faith Formation at a church meaningful, enjoyable and life-giving, but I could also see myself returning to hospital chaplaincy at some point, or maybe Campus Ministry.  I hope to be a stay-at-home mom for some period, at least, and I envision a life as freelance writer.  Simultaneously, I have a pipe-dream of returning to school one day to become a therapist, and there’s a part of me that hasn’t let go of my once-held aspiration to become a social worker.  I also always wonder about my childhood ambitions of teaching at a middle or high school level, within a classroom instead of a church hall. 

There was a time when I might have pursued any of these paths, and there is a place for staying open to the twists and turns of life.  I truly believe that each of our lives hold possibilities that we can’t yet fathom.  But there is also a time and place for letting go, for losing touch with the people I used to be — including their dreams — in order to fully become the person I am now. 

Unlike the Spanish-tile coasters, buried, or the grey silk blouse, stuffed away, I don’t want my potential to positively impact the world and my ability to enjoy the present moment to be lost — overcrowded and, ultimately, trapped by too many other good things.  There’s a time for relinquishing the antique Delft bowl, and resisting the Moroccan silk curtains.  Alluring as they are, there’s no room for them, and they’ll take away from the beauty of what already is. 

A point d’appui

At very best, a wedding is a chance to remember all of the beautiful aspects of marriage and to be inspired to fully treasure and cultivate those things.  Last weekend, I attended the wedding of two friends from Divinity School, and it offered both of these opportunities.

Through witnessing the couple’s beliefs about and approach to marriage — as evidenced by their choice of readings, music, and rituals, as well as their self-written vows — I was reminded of a central conviction of mine: that marriage isn’t just the next step, and the act of being married isn’t an additional identity byline, or one of many hats to wear.  Being married is a petri dish for rebirth, self-discovery, courage-finding, and transformation.  It’s a point d’appui.

Technically a military term, and French for fulcrum, a point d’appui is the location where troops are assembled prior to a battle.  It’s where they rest, nourish, and educate themselves so that they are able to put their best feet forward when called to service.  In Walden, Henry David Thoreau uses the term to describe the firm, solid ground of reality, beneath the shifting and unstable “mud and slush of opinion, and prejudice, and tradition, and delusion, and appearance.” 

Ludwigsburg, Germany

A point d’appui is a safe space, a spot of restoration and comfort.  Something I’m most grateful for in my marriage is that I have a home anywhere Caleb is — a place to be authentic, to be completely honest, to say exactly what I need, to be silent, to laugh and to have fun.  Caleb affirms me, encourages me, and challenges me, and he gives me room to replenish and rejuvenate myself through time alone and with friends and other family members. 

But to what end does my marriage provide this joy and revitalization?  As much as a point d’appui is a resting place, it is also a starting place.  In Thoreau’s language, it isn’t a foundation where one settles permanently, but a firm ground from which one takes a deep breath and then pushes off, like the wall of the pool that a swimmer uses to propel herself forward with strength and speed.

Notre Dame

I like thinking about marriage as a point d’appui because it shows just how ripe with possibility the union can be.  It’s a reminder that marriage isn’t an end in itself, something that we act upon, but instead, a place where we can be acted upon — through the love, wisdom, perspective and gifts of our partner — and transformed into the best possible version of ourselves.  Or, in the words of my friend’s self-written vows, a place to “fuel each other for the work of loving the world.” 

In other words, marriage is a place of becoming, a place where we bring our already magnificent selves to be admired, appreciated and delighted in; held, protected and comforted; buffed, shaped and strengthened; inspired, changed and transformed into our best selves.

Claude Monet’s House, in Giverny

 

Brainstorming

Caleb and I spent his Spring Break in Costa Rica visiting my Uncle John, who is spending the semester teaching geology at a university in San Jose.  It was our first time in Central America, let alone Costa Rica, and we went into the trip with a plan to actively explore both San Jose and a few destinations outside the city, accessible by bus. 

San Jose
Caleb and my uncle, and a pretty street near UJ’s hose, in San Jose

Highlights of the week included a day-trip to Jaco, a beach town on the west coast of the country, a long weekend spent in La Fortuna, the small, gateway town to Arenal Volcano National Park, and an afternoon at Sibu, a chocolatoeria and cafe that uses organic Costa Rican cacao to craft the most divine chocolates and desserts.

Jaco

Jaco
Jaco — the beach town we visited on the west coast
Sibu Chocolateria
Enjoying our desserts at Sibu Chocolateria

Unexpected highlights of the week were the early morning and evening hours that we spent huddled around the kitchen table with Uncle John, talking about everything from memories of past trips together to updates on various family members to books and current events.  A good conversation never fails to leave me feeling nourished and invigorated, and we had some stellar talks with Uncle John.

During our many hours of conversation, Uncle John (my mom’s younger brother, a Ritter) made a comment that stood out to me about my Coda-family aunts and uncles, whom he has gotten to know through backpacking trips that include the two sides of my extended family.  He observed that a conversation with one of the Coda brothers is like a brainstorming session: a free-form and spontaneous discussion that (hopefully) leads to unexpected connections, new ideas, and creative solutions to problems.  Uncle John commented that he sometimes feels compelled to take notes during a conversation with my Uncle Tom, for example, because the movements of Uncle Tom’s mind lead to all sorts of new ideas. 


I nodded along in agreement with Uncle John as he made this observation; I’ve often been struck by how thought-provoking and fascinating conversations with Dad and his brothers are.  More than recalling a positive quality of my extended family, however, Uncle John’s comment reminded me of the importance of brainstorming, a term that I loved how he used to describe the high-energy dialogue with my Coda uncles.

Brainstorming is the sort of activity that I’ve done formally in school and work settings in the past, but haven’t necessarily given much thought to in my personal endeavors and more self-directed recent work.  Unlike my Coda uncles, brainstorming isn’t something that comes naturally to me; I’m much more inclined to follow a to-do list than to let my mind wander in uncharted direction.  Uncle John’s observation reminded me of the fruits of brainstorming and inspired me to prioritize making time for the activity.     

Reflecting on brainstorming led me to realize that brainstorming is part of (if not the primary) reason why I blog.  Because of my inclination to follow an ordered to-do list, I can’t count on brainstorming to happen naturally in conversations that I have with others and thought-processes that I go on alone.  I need to devote particular time to brainstorming — to thinking about one idea and letting it take me to new thoughts, considerations, places and ideas.  Writing  helps me to do this, and blogging forces me to write. 

When I write a post, I generally have three pages open on my computer: the document in which I’m writing the post, an internet browser where I fact check and utilize the dictionary, and a separate brainstorming document.  In the brainstorming document, I capture the new thoughts and fresh ideas spring from the idea that I’m writing about in my post; I’m then able to return to these ideas at a later time. This method of brainstorming has helped me tap into my creative side and has made it so that I’m never at a loss for an idea of what to write about.  It has also given me a place to note ideas that come to me at other moments in my life.  Possessing a brainstorming document is like having a camera on my phone; I’m always prepared and ready to capture what might otherwise be a passing thought.

Volcan Arenal
Volcan Arenal

Hostel Arenal
The courtyard of the fabulous hostel we found in La Fortuna

Hostel Arenal

Hostel Arenal

Hostel Arenal

The enemy of the good

I first learned of Voltaire’s famous words “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” when my mom wrote them on a post-it note which she stuck to the basket where my Dad stores his keys, phone-charger, pager, and other miscellaneous items of importance.  I thought the quotation was just right (dare I say perfect?) for my Dad, a man who uses a tape measure before mowing the lawn to ensure proper dimensions for a croquet court and who spends hours upon hours crafting gifts of perfection, but I didn’t think it applied to me. 

The perfectly measured croquet court
A wooden spoon that my Dad made for me. The handle is hollowed out and filled with a small lead weight so that, when lying flat on a table, the bowl of the spoon won’t touch the table.

I’m not a perfectionist.  I take pride in a job well done, and I certainly appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted sentence or piece of artwork, but I often favor efficiency over the ideal.  I don’t measure ingredients when I cook and I infrequently (very infrequently) dust my base boards. 

And yet, there have been numerous instances in which Voltaire’s words have come to mind as I have been working on a task.  I’ve thought of them as I’ve agonized over the phrasing of an email.  I’ve thought of them as I’ve prepared talks to give at work.  And I’ve thought of them as I’ve written posts for this blog. 

In each of these instances, one of two things has happened: I’ve wasted a lot of time (spending an hour on an email that would have been equally well-received if written in fifteen minutes) or, infinitely worse, I’ve refrained from doing something because I was too afraid/prideful/cautious/insecure/vain to present good to the world, and I didn’t have time (or the capability, period) to present perfection.

In other words, I’ve frittered away precious time and I’ve held myself back — two things that I’m not proud of and that I don’t want to continue.  These are good reasons for me to keep Voltaire’s maxim in mind, self-identified perfectionist or not. 

Resolutions

A post or two back, I wrote about my words for 2017: Perspective, Prayerfulness and Poise.  I’m letting those words propel me, like the wind behind a boat, into this year that I hope will be one of growth and goodness. 

resolutions-image

But, we all know that a boat needs more than a bluster to venture far.  A rudder to guide it, a centerboard to balance it and a sail to catch the breeze are as necessary as the wind, and so, too, are some specific smart goals to accompany my words for the year.  Smart goals are goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-based, and they’re meant to add focus and specificity to one’s actions. 

I love the idea of having a word (or three, in my case) to give an overarching theme to the year, but I know that it’s the practicality of smart goals that will make living out my words possible.  With this in mind, I have created a few smart goals to accompany each of my words for the year.

Perspective

Most of my smart goals are related to Perspective, for a few reasons.  First, it’s my primary word for the year; prayerfulness and poise stem from it and I hope lead towards it.  Secondly, it’s a bit of a catch all.  The place where I most need perspective is work (I need to not let the petty (and legitimate) frustrations, the causes for anxiety, the at-times-annoying people get to me the way I do), and I’m of the mind that focusing on all the joyful, successful, meaningful and life-giving aspects of my life outside of work will help me remember what is important, thus giving me perspective when I have to deal with the inevitable challenges at work.  For this reason, I’ve crafted a whole slew of goals that will direct my attention outside of work.  That’s perspective after all, right? (one of my favorite definitions: a true understanding of the relative importance of things).

  • Try at least one new recipe from each of my cookbooks.  I have all these great cookbooks, but every time I want to try a new recipe, I look on pinterest or elsewhere on the internet, not in them.  I thought this would be a good goal to help me enjoy my home more… and delve into a hobby that I always take pleasure in, cooking.
  • Read Middlemarch.  I have a “Read Before I Die” list and, for the past several years, have tried to read one or two books off of it each year.  This is the year for Middlemarch.
  • Go on one adventure a month (I have a list of adventures, which I’ll discuss in a different post).
  • Complete a full twelve weeks of BBG (this is the exercise plan that I use fairly consistently — I really like it — but hop all over with; having consistency and a sense of completion but completing the full 12-week cycle will be satisfying).
  • Decrease sugar consumption by taking sugar-free weeks, or weeks with sugar just one or two days.  There is no reason that I should be having dessert every day, if not multiple times a day.  With 28 upon me, it’s time to change this.
  • Acknowledge birthdays. Send cards, texts, emails or phone calls.  Do something to celebrate and connect with the people I love. 
  • Blog 50 times.
  • Connect with my siblings monthly, at minimum.  My brothers and sister, along with Caleb and my parents, are the people who matter most to me in the world and I almost always have fun and feel lifted up when I talk/text/snap with them.  And yet, I don’t do it enough. 
  • Get organized with giving.  I donate here and there, but in a highly disorganized fashion.  I want to consider what causes and organizations I value and admire (and Caleb, too) and get organized about making donations to them. 

Prayerfulness

  • Reflect/journal for at least fifteen minutes each day. 
  • Continue to invest in Spiritual Direction, and integrate what Rosemary (my Spiritual Director) has to say to me into my life. 
  • When I have a lull moment — in the grocery store line, or the shower or the car — give a “help, thanks, wow” prayer: ask for help with something I need, say thanks for something I’m grateful for, and lift a word of praise.
  • A feeling of skepticism accompanies most of my moments of prayer; let the skepticism go

Poise

  • Wear heels more, because: look good, feel good, do good.  Or, as William James more poignantly wrote, “Actions seems to follow feeling, but really actions and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not. Thus the sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.”  In other words, if I look poised, I will feel more poised, and I will be more poised.
  • Floss daily and take vitamins at least a few times each week.  Flossing is one of those things that I have known for a long time I should do regularly, but just couldn’t have been bothered about it.  I figured that 2017 was as good a time to commit to this as any, and I knew that developing this healthy habit would help me feel on top of my life; the same goes for vitamins.  These goals loosely tie into poise for the same reason as wearing heals.
  • Before going into situations that I know will push my buttons, prepare myself: take a deep breath and say a prayer for composure and remind myself that I have agency and the ability to be poised.  Then go act accordingly!

“Life is Hard. But Love Wins.”

I recently read this quote by Glennon Doyle Melton on her Instagram feed: “Life is hard.  But love wins.”  If I had to pick six words to summarize my philosophy of life, those might be them. dsc_0133

Challenge, struggle, grief, pain, frustration, annoyance, anxiety — these things are real.  Informed by Internal Family Systems model, I am a big proponent of acknowledging and naming all our feelings, of giving the negative as well as the positive a voice, of normalizing the dark aspects of ourselves and our experiences that we so often want to hide or gloss over.  Life is hard.  And if not particularly so in the present moment, we know that it will be: we will all face losses and heartache and disappointment, in some capacity.  As one of my favorite Divinity School professors said, “the one thing I guaranteed my children upon giving them life was death.” 

And yet.  (Those are two golden words themselves, offering the chance for a closer examination, a longer look, a turning over of an idea, like a coin in your hand, to get a different perspective.)

Hope, satisfaction, relief, connection, warmth, joy, kindness — these things, the many manifestations of love in its various emotions and flavors, are also real. dsc_0107

Caleb is visiting his parents and siblings in Ohio for our sweet niece’s first birthday party, so I’m spending the morning in bed, content with my laptop, journal, a stack of books, and a cup of coffee.  I’m cozy under the weight of the quilt my mom made us for a wedding gift, with its “courthouse steps” and “Ohio star” patterns, mixing fabrics from my childhood — snips of halloween costumes and Cameroonian prints and my St. Andrew School uniform.  What a gift of love.  What a tangible reminder of the attention, time, creativity, discipline and tenderness my mom has wrapped around me — warm and protective, like the quilt itself — for the past almost-three decades.dsc_0125

I’ve felt anxious and sad about my parents this past week.  My mom slipped on the ice — breaking her nose, jamming her shoulder and gashing her forehead — and then they’re also about to head off for six months in Uganda.  I worry about them and I worry about me and what I would do if something happened to them.

The realness of love doesn’t negate the hardness of life, but maybe it makes it worth it. 

Labor Day Musings

It’s Labor Day, marking the end of summer and the beginning of fall, as far as I’m concerned.  And also as far as I’m concerned, it’s been the perfect weekend for this transition.  Saturday was warm and sunny, and Caleb and I spent the day in Keene, New Hampshire, soaking in one last summer day trip.  We toured the Horatio Colony Museum (a fantastic tour! Engaging, informative, private, and free!), had a delicious patio lunch at Stage, walked through the town’s weekly Farmers’ Market,  happened upon a special weekend art fair, went to Mass at the local Catholic church, and meandered through Keene State College (a beautiful campus, and, interestingly, one of the few liberal arts state schools).  Today, on the other hand, has felt perfectly autumnal — cool, windy and grey — and I’ve spent the day inside drinking coffee, writing, reading, and organizing my life (cleaning out my desk and catching up on e-mails, mostly; it’s amazing how much inner order can come from having order in these two realms).

I love it when time and circumstances line up in this way, creating a special kind of space for transition and for paying attention to time (the passing of it and the looking towards it).  It helps me to give thanks for the past, honor the present, and look forward to the future, and to overall cherish the sacredness of life.

Reflecting on the past and setting intentions for the future help me to cherish the sacredness of life, as well.  And so now, to reflect on my summer and the goals that I set for it…

Honoring Summer

  • Take a day trip to a new location each week that doesn’t involve some other sort of travel
    • There were many trips, day and otherwise, this summer.  In a whirlwind of the first weekend of June, we went to Port Clinton, OH to see Aunt Barb, to Cleveland for a dear college friend’s wedding, and to Columbus for our precious niece’s Baptism.  Later in June we spent a glorious week in Kiawah with Caleb’s family (but first, a weekend in Charleston) and a special long weekend in Shady Grove for my sister’s pre-wedding festivities.  We went to Bristol, Little Compton, Concord and Keene, and spent several individual days or parts of days in Boston seeing friends (and we hosted several different friends in Providence).  And we spent a stellar seven days hiking in the Sierra Nevadas, with our very best of friends (cousins and siblings).  We packed the summer with activity.hike
  • Eat/drink on the deck/patio of a new (to us) restaurant each non-travelling week
    • There was no shortage of good food this summer.  Enough said.  
  • Talk to an old friend on the phone/facetime/skype every week
    • Several weeks ago, I modified this goal to say that if, in the last three weeks of summer, I caught up with five old friends, I would call the goal complete.  And that I did!  
  • Write one blog post each week
    • I skimped on this goal these past few weeks, but feel satisfied with the time I spent writing for other, non-blog endeavors, so no hard feelings on this one.
  • Complete a few projects that have been on my list for ages:
    • Create a photo wall to display recently taken pictures
      • Yes!Magnet wall
    • Complete a writing project
      • Written!  Submitted!  Accepted???  I hope!  But, as I know all too well, I can’t control outcomes, only inputs.  So, I’ve done what I can and am letting go of the rest.
    • Buy and fill in a birthday calendar
      • Yes!
    • Hang artwork that has accumulated
      • Yes!Gallery Wall
    • Learn how to use Caleb’s camera
      • Yes!  …with lots of practice needed, of course.  And what better time and place for practice than in a New England autumn?!

Making life enjoyable

“Be happy for this moment.  This moment is your life.” — Omar Khayyam

This past weekend, I went home to Pennsylvania for a weekend of my sister Clare’s pre-wedding festivities.  On Saturday afternoon through Sunday, I hosted a bachelorette party (complete with a bridal party yoga class, dinner at a little Italian place, lots of bachelorette games and boozy punch, and a good-old-fashioned-sleepover in my parents’ home), and then on Sunday, the mother of Clare’s childhood best friend (who also happened to be my three siblings’ and my kindergarten teacher) hosted a gorgeous bridal shower in her home.  After the shower, we returned to my parents’ house for a family cookout.

During the planning stages of the weekend, I called the shower hostess to rsvp, ask if there was anything that I could do to help, and thank her for offering to host.  Graciously, she exclaimed that she was so happy to be able to offer a shower, saying “I am delighted by Clare and Katie’s lifelong friendship, and your family’s friendship means so much to me; celebrating these friendships and milestones are what makes life enjoyable.” 

These words deeply resonated with me.  Celebrating friendships, celebrating milestones — celebrating people and moments — are what make life enjoyable.  We each just have one life to live, and that life moves quickly, and that life can be really hard at times.  Why not make it a point to take the time and energy and effort to enjoy it through celebrating meaningful relationships and moments?

A Fly on the Wall

At some point, we’ve all probably been asked to “say something interesting” about ourselves during an icebreaker or getting to know you activity.  Or, we’ve been asked if we know any good jokes.  These are the types of questions that drive me crazy, because I know that I have good answers to them, but the answers always seem to escape me in the moment of need, and I resort to posing “What’s the difference between snow-men and snow-women?…” Read more