A sheltered life can be a daring life as well.

A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within. — Eudora Welty

A piece of advice that has stuck with me over the years came from one of my college professors, after I shared with him that I was having a hard time making the choice between studying abroad for a semester or staying at my home university, Wittenberg, for all of my sophomore year.  Like many decisions, this was a difficult one because I was choosing between two good options.  Studying abroad would give me the chance to experience a different  part of the world and make new friends, but I also had much to gain from remaining at a place that I knew to have excellent classes, devoted professors, and dear friends.

My professor’s suggestion: “Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing, so it’s usually a good idea to say yes to new opportunities.” 

I took his advice, and he was right: until I was leaning over the Ponte Vecchio bridge in Florence, celebrating my 20th birthday with new friends and red wine from the corner store; until I was requesting crepes with apricot jam for dinner from my indulgent host father Gerhard; until I was sharing an order of street stand wienerschnitzel in a cozy Viennese hostel room with friends who remain close to me today; until I walked the snowy streets of Salzburg late at night, and then eventually watched the snow melt away and the trees lining the Salzach River burst into bloom; until I had these new and precious experiences, I didn’t know what I was missing.

It’s somewhat unsettling to think about the things we would have missed if we had lived our lives differently, and perhaps it’s even more unsettling to consider the other side of the coin: the things we’ve missed because we’ve taken our particular path. 

What if I hadn’t gone to Wittenberg?  What if I hadn’t joined my sorority and met Sarah, who introduced me to her brother Caleb?  What if I hadn’t taken the risk of a long distance relationship and gone to graduate school in Boston?  What if I had taken a year off between college and graduate school instead?  What if I had majored in Psychology rather than religion?  What if I had turned down the part-time youth ministry job at Our Lady of Sorrows?

Awareness of this unsettling feeling — one that has almost taken my breath away at times — has pushed me to eagerly seek new experiences and say yes to opportunities for adventure, professional development, learning, new relationships, and really, expansion of myself in any form.  For a long time this meant that I was constantly on the move, filling free evenings with social gatherings or events, free weekends with day trips or getaways, and free weeks with longer-distance travel. 

But these days I’m noticing that expansion of myself is taking a different shape: it’s staying home and filling most of my free time with reading and writing.  It’s languishing in an uncommitted weekend and resisting invitations.  It’s prioritizing time alone, and committing to putting pen to paper at least a few hours a week. 

A few years ago, this change of pace might have scared or bored me, and truthfully, there are moments now when I somewhat panickedly think, “What if I’m missing something?”  But the truth is that we’re always missing something.  Saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else.  There’s a time to say yes to outward adventure — to new situations and spaces and people and places — and a time to yes to inner adventure — new books and ideas and insights and personal projects. 

The point is to stay open and to keep saying yes to something — whether that’s an outer something or an inner something.  As Eudora Welty says, “A sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.”

 

Photo by Pavan Trikutam on Unsplash

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

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

This is not a post about becoming a pseudo-vegetarian

hnck7938After years of believing that if I were a better person I would become a vegetarian, I finally caved and watched Food, Inc..  I knew that the film — or any of the the many other meat-industry indicting books or media items in the market — would push my conscience over the edge and that I would be forced to truly confront my meat-eating and meat-loving habits.  I resisted all of the literature (Eating Animals, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, etc.) for this precise reason: I didn’t want to face the facts that would morally compel me to give up something that I enjoy eating.  Ignorance is bliss. 

Just as I suspected it would, Food, Inc. depressed and horrified me, and it depressed and horrified Caleb even more; and so without further adieu, Caleb is taking the vegetarian leap, and I’m taking vegetarian steps. (Translation: Caleb is giving up meat; I’m more or less giving up cooking meat — though if I am really craving it I might give in and allow myself to buy the expensive grass-fed, local stuff that I don’t find ethically problematic — and I’ll only eat meat  that I haven’t cooked if a) it will go to waste otherwise, or b) it would be rude or an inconvenience to someone else for me not to eat it. And I’m still eating fish.  In other words, I’m not becoming a vegetarian, but I am becoming much more conscientious about my consumption.) Read more

Contemplating Attention, Cultivating Appreciation

Woman WritingI have an inkling that there is a direct correlation between attention and appreciation.  Increased attention to the stuff of life – books, conversations, scenery, foods, people, tasks, and so on – leads to an increased appreciation of what could otherwise be easily overlooked.  For an example, I find that annotating articles or books helps me pay closer attention to the ideas expressed in them, so that regardless of the extent to which I like or dislike the piece of writing, I am more able to understand and appreciate the point the author made.  The more I take notes, the more I pay attention, and the more attention I pay, the more I appreciate.  Read more