Idling in the Middle

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Making decisions, especially the big life ones, has always been hard for me. This does not make me unique, I know, for I can imagine that decision-making – whether regarding a relationship, a job, a move – is universally intimidating. My difficult decision du jour concerns the next phase of my professional life and what that might look like.

It’s complicated because I am smack dab in the middle of middle life; that is, if you subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary definition:

The central period of a person’s life, between around 45 and 60 years old.

Yeah, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Dictionary.com holds no punches, however, in laying out the experiences one might “enjoy” during a mid-life crisis.

…a period of psychological stress occurring in middle age, thought to be triggered by a physical, occupational, or domestic event, as menopause, diminution of physical prowess, job loss, or departure of children from the home.

Let’s be honest. If you’re going to attach “crisis” to a period in one’s life, odds are things are going to look bleak. Reading this definition reminds me of those television commercials about new medications on the market, you know the ones with the scary disclaimer at the end that names all of “potential side effects.”

But they don’t have to. Look bleak, that is. As I muddle through this time of self-reflection and analysis, I remind myself I always have a lifeline: free will. These are my decisions, after all. I have freedom of choice and more important, freedom to change my mind. If I decide to do over my do-over, who am I hurting?

The details of the next chapter are unclear. It’s both exciting and unnerving, but I’m pushing forward, staying open-minded and seeking good counsel from others. In the meantime, I’m learning some things about myself, while honing my skills in acceptance, patience, trust and faith. And who can argue with that?

Snow Day Cookies
In this part of the country, we’ve been experiencing some “testy” winter weather. Snow and ice…and more snow and ice. Which means more time indoors for navel-gazing and contemplating my future. These Snow Day Cookies provide the perfect distraction — sweet, gooey, and downright humbling in their magic.

Ingredients:
2-1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 c. brown sugar, firmly packed
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 c. softened butter
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 12 oz. package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 c. chopped black walnuts (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine flour, salt and baking soda in a bowl and set aside. Combine sugars, softened butter and vanilla extract in a second bowl and beat with a hand mixer until creamy. Add eggs and beat until combined. Add dry ingredients and mix well. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts if using. Drop mixture by rounded teaspoonfuls onto non-greased cookie sheets. Bake 10 minutes. Yields 2+ dozen.

That Kind of Friend

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When my younger daughter was in elementary school, she made a friend named Catherine. Often she came home with stories of her new gal pal and their budding friendship. I was delighted, of course, and, as was typical of my over-eager, best-intentioned, young mother self, I encouraged my daughter to invite her friend to our house. But despite my best efforts to encourage what I believed to be the next obvious step, my daughter was having none of it.

“She’s not that kind of friend,” explained my little sage (always wise beyond her years). Addressing what must have been a perplexed expression on my face, she further added: “There are all kinds of friends. School friends and home friends are not always the same. Catherine is a school friend.” Ultimately, I gave up on my pursuit.

Now, almost 19 years later, I think the light bulb may have finally fired. As I reflect on the friendships I have been blessed to have, I realize how right my daughter was. Not all my friends serve the same purpose in my life, though I love each of them with equal abandon. I have my go-to girls when I need a good laugh or cry; the steady Eddies (or Edwinas) who ground me when I’m off the rails; the girls who just wanna have fun (and are really good at it); the commiserators who assure me I’m not alone; and the dreamers who make it okay to think big.

They are my wonder women. My heroines. My saviors. My friends. Perhaps, as our little girl selves, some of us may have shared secrets under the sleeping bag fort at home, while others would have been eager to pass notes at lunch. Today of course, those lines are blurred into non-existence. I know only that I am grateful for each and every one of them, mostly because they are not going anywhere. We are in it for the long haul. They are just that kind of friend.

Banana Walnut Bread
(recipe courtesy of Cooking Light)
Let’s just say my daughter did in fact invite her friend home one afternoon. This might have been precisely the after-school snack to provide. Although this particular loaf is made healthier due to the use of rolled oats and whole wheat flour, it is no less sweetly satisfying.

Ingredients
3/4 c. buttermilk
1/2 c. plus 3 tbsp. quick oats, divided
6 oz. plus 1 tbsp. whole wheat flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
5/8 tsp. kosher salt, divided
3/4 c. plus 3 tbsp. packed light brown sugar, divided
6 tbsp. roasted walnut oil, divided
1/4 c. chopped walnuts
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1-1/3 c. mashed very ripe bananas (about 3)
1-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350°F. Stir buttermilk into 1/2 cup oats in a bowl; let stand 10 minutes.

Place 1-1/2 cups flour in a bowl. Stir in baking powder, baking soda, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Combine 3 tablespoons sugar, 2 tablespoons oil, nuts, cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and remaining oats and flour in a small bowl.

Add bananas, vanilla, eggs, and remaining brown sugar and oil to buttermilk mixture; fold in flour mixture. Spoon batter into a 9- x 5-inch loaf pan coated with cooking spray. Sprinkle walnut streusel over top. Bake at 350°F until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, 55 minutes to 1 hour. Cool in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes.

Remove bread from pan; serve warm, or cool completely.

We’re Listening

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At the end of a week when we buried a U.S. President with all the ceremony befitting a man of honor, I have been thinking about respect and what we do with our lives to make them matter.  Certainly, President George H.W. Bush, a medaled Naval officer and American statesman who devoted his life and career to the service of others, is but a shining example of one to hold in high regard.  The late President lived a life that – regardless of politics – merited our esteem, reverence and admiration.  Flawed in his humanity (as we all are), he no doubt earned our respect – throughout his life and now in his death.

My late father was a congenial man.  He was funny, laid back, patient, compassionate and kind.  But there were two things he would not abide: disrespecting my mother and speaking ill of others.  This made an impression on me.  He was, after all, my hero.  

Author and activist Bryant H. McGill says:  “One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say.”  It costs us nothing to lean in a little closer — to listen and to be heard.  I believe it was Albert Einstein who once said he speaks to everyone — from the garbage man to the university president — in the same way.

And though most of us cannot claim to be superheroes or statesmen, Nobel Prize winners, or even geniuses, we all have something to contribute.  And others are listening, for we are in this together.

This recipe for Everything Biscuits is another gem from Julia Turshen’s Small Victories.  I love this book, as is evident by my frequent references to it.  It is one of my favorites, not only because of the recipes, which are delicious and surprisingly fool-proof (bonus!), but because of the title and running theme: small victories.  Tomorrow, take some time to listen to someone; perhaps he/she needs to be heard.  A small victory indeed.

Ingredients
2 tsp. poppy seeds
2 tsp. sesame seeds
2 tsp. onion flakes
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. kosher salt
8 tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-in. cubes and chilled
1 1/2 cups buttermilk, plus more for brushing

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. In a small bowl, stir together the poppy seeds, sesame seeds, and onion flakes. Set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Using your hands, work the butter into the flour mixture, rubbing it between your fingers until the mixture turns into coarse crumbs. Using a wooden spoon, gently stir in the buttermilk until the mixture becomes a shaggy dough. Stir in half of the seed mixture.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and pat it out so that it’s about 1 in. thick. Using a 20-in. round cutter, stamp out biscuits as close together as possible. Transfer the biscuits to the prepared baking sheet, spacing them evenly. Pat the dough scraps together (do not overwork the dough), re-roll, and cut out more biscuits. You should end up with a dozen biscuits, although I was actually able to squeeze 17 out of this recipe!

Place the baking sheet in the refrigerator and chill the biscuits for about 1 hour. Baking them from cold will yield flakier biscuits.  Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450°F.

Right before baking, brush each biscuit lightly with buttermilk and then sprinkle evenly with the remaining seed mixture.  Bake the biscuits until they’re risen and golden, 15 to 20 minutes, turning the baking sheet halfway through baking. Serve warm and enjoy!

Ice-Cube Zen

I hate being late. I’m pretty sure this dates back to a childhood obsession with “people pleasing” that has carried over into my adult world. Not that there’s anything wrong with it; it’s nice to show up on time — professionally speaking, this is a bonus, and I think when you’re a dinner guest or meeting a friend, promptness is a courtesy we all can appreciate.

The thing is, I’m realizing that my race to get out the door is inhibiting my ability to live in the present. This is a goal of mine, now that I am in a transitional life phase (that sounds ominous; it shouldn’t).  With all of my children no longer children and living primarily on their own, I find that the mental energy I expend during most days centers around work and…work. Again, this is good — from a professional standpoint, I’m being productive and I like to feel as though I’m accomplishing something (again, the people pleasing rears its sometimes ugly head). But the days are whizzing by, and I’m realizing that there is a real peace and satisfaction in sometimes doing and thinking nothing. Well, not nothing, but nothing of consequence.

In his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh offers practical suggestions for how we become more mindful. One of my favorites:

“While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes, one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”

It’s been more than a decade since I first picked up the Zen master’s seminal work, but for some reason, this passage has stayed with me. And I was reminded of it today as I was filling the ice-cube trays.

In our house, this is a job usually reserved for my husband. I can’t give a good reason as to why, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that, well, he just has more patience than I. There are 6 trays in our freezer, and emptying and refilling them all at once takes — oh, I don’t know — maybe 3-4 minutes. In my world, that’s 4 minutes I could otherwise be accomplishing something. But today, armed with a renewed commitment to living presently in the moment, I filled the trays. And while I was filling the trays, I thought of nothing else but filling those trays. Watching the small cavities gradually transform from empty to full was gratifying — A little nugget of momentary peace.  I’ll take it.

Baked Rice Pudding
This dish, in addition to filling your belly with warm, sweet satisfaction, offers good practice in mindfulness and patience, as it requires some babysitting, a little extra TLC, if you will. But oh, it’s worth it.

Ingredients:
4 c. Whole milk (more as needed)
⅓ c. Arborio rice
⅓ c. Sugar
1 T Unsalted butter
½ Cinnamon stick
1 t. Vanilla extract
Zest from one orange
Fine sea salt
Optional: ½ c. dried fruits such as raisins, currants, cherries, etc.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish.

In a saucepan, combine the milk, rice, sugar, butter and cinnamon stick. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Pour into the baking dish and distribute evenly. Bake, stirring with a wooden spoon every 15-20 minutes — this is where the patience part comes in — until the rice is very tender and has absorbed most of the milk, about 1.5 hours.

Remove from the oven and stir in vanilla, orange zest and a pinch of salt (*if you’re adding dried fruit, this is when you’ll want to do that). If the pudding seems too thick, stir in additional milk until you have achieved desired consistency. Spoon into bowls, and enjoy! (makes 4-6 servings)

–Adapted from Comfort Food for Williams-Sonoma (Oxmoor House, 2009).

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Homecomings…and Goings

IMG_0818My oldest child returned home from a two-month job out west last week. Her stay here will be temporary, as she is preparing for a new adventure in yet another part of the country and will be leaving again in just a few short days. It’s hard saying hello again, knowing that more goodbyes are imminent. These grainy sands of time just keep slipping through my fingers.

There is still one child home, and he turns 18 this week — the age at which one is considered a legal adult in the U.S. Old enough to legally work, participate in contracts, vote, marry, give sexual consent, and join the military.So in truth, he is an adult; there are no more children at home.

We have a tradition in our family that when one celebrates a birthday, he/she is treated to breakfast in bed. In a happy surprise, the almost-adult told me he wanted to stick with tradition and be feted in bed with a big old breakfast! I’m figuring this might be my last opportunity, so I plan to make it memorable.

Of course, for me they’re all memorable. Burned in my memory in fact. Every breakfast in bed; every birthday party; every celebration that ever was. Hopefully, the “kids” share those memories. Maybe they will think of them (and me), even as time between homecomings becomes longer.

photo (21)Lemon Blueberry Muffins
I love these muffins for their sunny, lemony taste and for their incredible fluffiness — made possible by the addition of a few special ingredients. These will certainly be on the menu for Spencer’s breakfast in bed.

Ingredients:
3 c. flour, plus 1 T. for dredging the berries
4 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 t. lemon zest
1/2 c. butter, melted
1-1/2 c. sour cream*
1 c. blueberries

*(Sometimes I like to mix 1 c. of sour cream with 1/2 c. of crème frâiche.)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease or line a 12-well muffin tin with paper liners.

In a mixing bowl, combine 3 cups flour, baking powder, and salt, and whisk until thoroughly combined. Create a well in the bottom of the bowl for adding the wet ingredients.

In another large mixing bowl, whisk together the sugar, eggs, lemon zest, and melted butter.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients; mix until combined and then add the sour cream. Lightly mix again but do not over mix. Toss the blueberries with 1 tablespoon flour and fold into the batter.

Divide the batter evenly into each cup in the prepared muffin tin.

Bake for approximately 22 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.
(recipe adapted from Kelsey Nixon, Kelsey’s Essentials.)

Season of Missing

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It’s cold here on the east coast.  There is a biting wind outside that elevates the notion of “chill in the air” to something otherworldly. Although I am a December baby, these frigid months are especially hard for me, now … Continue reading

Plant Your Roots, and Watch What Grows

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Today is December 1 and in 29 days I will turn 50. Here’s me in Atlanta, Georgia, just six months shy of my 4th birthday. Not much has changed since then (though I do miss those white patent leather Mary … Continue reading