Tag: Creativity

16Mar

From Doorstops to Dishes

“The dishes!” I wail, glancing into the kitchen on my way to bed. “Why are there always and forever dishes needing to be washed?”

Dan replies kindly: “Because we use them.”

“Oh. Right.”

~~~

On Valentine’s Day, 2004, I kicked my brand new husband out of the house for four hours so I could make Chicken Parmesan as a surprise. To this day, I have no idea how a pile of chicken-topped spaghetti could possibly have taken four hours, but it’s fair to say I had no idea what I was doing. (The consistency of said chicken, which could have better served as packing material, agrees.) However, I so longed to make something beyond our standard fare of Campbell’s and Kraft. Surely, surely, with a little effort and the clucking, grandmotherly help of that red plaid cook book, culinary pleasure could be found in our dining room.

We ate Taco Bell the next day.

A lot changes when one moves to a country without fast food, though. When we first arrived in Italy, I mostly fixed packages of risotto mix and frozen chicken cordon bleu, and we picked up pizza a few times a week. However, I took mental notes each time we were invited to an Italian meal. One friend taught me how to make melt-in-your-mouth gnocchi; another gave me her recipe for amazing oven-roasted potatoes. I learned—thanks to my longsuffering husband—how to make cappuccinos, and I started auditioning new dessert recipes with his co-workers each week. I made a New Year’s resolution to learn how to cook meat so that people would rather eat it than use it as a doorstop. The next year, with a tasty repertoire of brining and braising techniques, I made a New Year’s resolution to make friends with vegetarian fare. I started jotting down menus and grocery lists for the first time in my life.

This year, my attention is drawn more toward my desk than toward the kitchen, but the process of cooking still engages my heart in a way I couldn’t have imagined six years ago. There’s something sacred in the challenge of planning meals to nourish my family’s bodies and souls while guarding our time and finances. There is mindfulness in rubbing fragrant herbs into a pot of soup, serenity in rolling pastry dough. Food preparation is no longer just a means to survival—it is a classroom, a laboratory, and an art studio. A love song. A risk, an exploit, a gathering of the usual five senses plus a few more. A thrice-daily dose of beauty to share and savor.

It is also, as reluctant as I may be to admit this, worth every single always-and-forever-dirty dish.

24Feb

Where Art Thou, Orlagh

“Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget’st so long
To speak of that which gives thee all thy might?”
~ Wm. Shakespeare

I was late the day they assigned muses. By the time I rushed in, damp hair undermining any credibility to my car trouble story, Mrs. Butterworth and Lemony Snicket were already taken. So were the Woset in my Closet, the world’s hottest chili pepper, and Frida Kahlo’s eyebrow… and despite my hopeful nods toward the corner where Mr. Darcy sat brooding, I ended up with Tinkerbell’s hormonal older sister Orlagh.

Like all fairy folk, Orlagh is drawn to sunbeams and jewel tones, sugar crystals and laughing water, words that twist and melt and sparkle on the tongue; however, neither her name nor her thyroid is doing her any favors. She gets overwhelmed easily. Weeks strung along with gray days send her into a sulk. She tends to get bogged down in jealousy when she should be inspired, and she is endlessly worried over which color petals go with her skin tone (periwinkle makes her face look puffy, buttercup washes her out).

She refuses to show up without caffeine, no matter how many times I reminder her it’s an unhealthy habit. She won’t come in to work on the weekends, and she often decides she needs a few hours of beauty sleep just as I’m sitting down to meet with her. She abandons perfectly delicious sentences to moon over Peter Pan. Head colds and out-of-town guests provide equal rationale for her to jet off to Maui without so much as an “aloha!” and when she returns—sometimes weeks later—her telltale tan fades more quickly than her reluctance.

However, beneath all its moody layers, Orlagh’s heart is deep and lovely. Many of my happiest hours have been spent creating with her, brainstorming in whispers and coaxing letters into life. When I have time (and adequate caffeine in my system) and her hormones have a temporary foothold, we work so well together that it’s more like playing. I like her. All except for the jet-setting and flaky work ethic and downward emotional spirals. And that awful name. But besides that, I really have grown fond of my muse.

So if you’re reading this, Orlagh, I’d love for you to come on home now. No combination of seasonal sicknesses and dead cars and weepy two-year-olds and allergy immunotherapy treatments and unfortunate bedtimes is enough to make me stop wanting you around. In fact, I’m craving another of our morning-long creative sessions. I miss you, and I promise not to say anything about your extended absence if you bring me back a piña colada and maybe a cluster of freshwater pearls. (Tiny ones, in graduated shades of orange and brown. Strung on silk. With a silver pendant.)

“Return, forgetful Muse, and straight redeem
In gentle numbers time so idly spent;
Sing to the ear that doth thy lays esteem

And gives thy pen both skill and argument.”
~ Wm. Shakespeare

“And if thou canst thy fickleness outgrow
Or thy vacations halt, I shall, methinks,
Back to the reassignment center go
And hire as my new muse Jar Jar Binks.”
~ Me

8Oct

Lost Balloon

Of the four computers in the house, one — mine — has grown surly and recalcitrant as a teenager. One refuses to work unless the voodoo powers that be compel it. One is actually a television. And the fourth, the sluggish, crumb-sticky laptop that Natalie claims for her video games, is suddenly my best option. It has a backspace delay of several seconds (resulting in frequent retypings and gnashing of teeth), and my word processing program scares it into shock, but it’s the best I have. At least until the savings envelope quadruples in size and I can pick out a machine that doesn’t have peanut butter under the shift key.

But this isn’t really about computers. I am plenty familiar with the lifespan of technology, how it goes from chrome to rust in sixty, how new and obsolete are not mutually exclusive. I can’t really begrudge these indispensable frames of LCD and soldered brains, even while I’m mashing the manual reset and muttering bad words. They’re temporal. I get it.

The problem here is that my mind is treating our uncooperative computers as a roadblock. No, not a roadblock… more like an intruder, someone locked in my house keeping my things hostage while I watch bewildered through the windows. I’m embarrassingly helpless without my dear little organization system, my lists at fingertip access, my photos subcategorized and standing at attention. I hate having to wait when a sentence springs to mind. This, my reason mumbles wild-eyed, is why you don’t have a hope of writing. It’s right. Until I can get into some kind of happy routine, my stories will coalesce in the “Snippets” folder. Until I can confidently delegate minutes to exercise and food and fairy tales and playing author, I will continue to feel shut out of my own head. And until I have a trustworthy set-up for all my niggling technological needs, my schedule will keep wandering in a stupor.

At least, that’s how it seems right now. Inspiration formless and void, drifting like a lost balloon… My words temporarily homeless, carving out awkward niches to spend the night… October a quarter gone, still disoriented and unsustainable… It seems the question for this autumn is not how to adjust to a new way of life or how to recoup my fragmented emotions or even how to keep the kitchen floor clean (I’ve got that one covered for once), but how to stop pinning my writing aspirations on the technology that makes them possible.

Okay, so maybe this is about computers after all.

28Jan

The Death of Chipper

My mental dialogue lately has been about as opposite from chipper as possible. (In fact, I completely despise the word “chipper” and would love nothing better than taking a sharp, rusty eraser to it. Case in point.) I’m partially proud of myself for not letting this negativity spill over onto my blog and partially guilty for not having the balls to write through the rough times. Either way, I’ve missed you, sweet Internet.

I seem to have come down with a raging case of Incurable Motherhead that has left me flat on the freshly-scrubbed bathroom floor wondering if I will survive the month. The choices do not look good from here: 1) Live in abject squalor, forego cooking, and largely ignore my family so that I can make a foray into the world of writing… or 2) Continue to be a tolerable housewife and mommy while stifling 97% of creative impulses because free time? Doesn’t exist so much.

You mamas whose children are finally in a less-needy stage of life—Was it this hard for you? I feel terrified that if I give up on my daydreams now, I won’t be able to pick them back up once life has settled enough to allow for them. I’m likewise terrified that if I don’t find contentment now, my girls will grow up with an aloof and unhappy mother. Occupied, distant, unfulfilled, absolutely not the kind of parent my little girls deserve.

And now you all need antidepressants. Apologies.

I’m unsure where to go from here—should I redirect my lagging energy away from cleaning or blogging or venturing out of the house or occasional grooming practices?—but I assure you: it will not involve the word “chipper.”

21Oct

Warning: Do Not Scrapbook

I’ve caught that little internet cold that makes its rounds during the chilling downslope of seasons. I was hoping, sincerely, to catch the homey enchantment of A Week In A Life instead; everyone’s week looks so lovely in detail, and scrapbooking! What says “I am a fount of creativity and time-management” more than that? (I have a beautiful bin of scrapbooking supplies myself, but it only comes out during weeks my family agrees not to eat or wear clothes or use the floors. So, not often.) I did try starting a Week In A Life post, and it went like this:

Monday

7:30 a.m. – My alarm goes off, even though I don’t remember setting it last night. I kick husband repeatedly until he gets up to turn it off for me (thankfully for our marriage, he understands I’m not accountable for anything before 10 a.m… and sleeps with me anyway). I lie in bed thinking violent morning thoughts, ruing the day I was born, etc. until Sophie’s hungry shrieks become impossible to tune out.

8:30 a.m. – Natalie, who is coughing up bits of spleen, is sent off to the doctor who prescribes antibiotics and staying home from school. We have a solid ten minutes of fun dusting the living room before she deteriorates into boredom as I start Hour #1 of dishes for the day. “Mommy, can you pleeeeease play with me? Mommy, can you pleeeeease read with me? Mommy, isn’t it a struggle not to succumb to the guilt of wasting away my precious childhood by scrubbing windows that will just be grimy again by the weekend?” She hasn’t coughed once since getting back from the doctor’s, of course.

12:30 p.m. – Sophie, who may or may not be teething, is up from her nap and wants to be held. I, multi-tasker though I am, have limits and cannot manage to hold her whilst simultaneously mashing the potatoes, hanging the wet laundry, and washing Hour #2 of dishes before Dan gets home for lunch. Sophie stands in the middle of the room perfecting her Nazgûl scream. Natalie is frustrated with her puzzle and begins to cry. My sanity calls in a sick day.

Technically, the week started with Sunday, but that found me three seconds away from a nervous breakdown at church, complete with bloodthirsty fantasies toward Natalie’s Sunday School class bully and the very near cussing-out of the kindly old people pestering Sophie into gut-wrenching sobs. It hasn’t exactly been a scrapbook-worthy week.

No, the internet cold I got is the one that makes people forget who they want to be when they grow up and lose inspiration for everything from art to regular showering and wonder why they keep blogging anyway. I caught it right in the face, too. It’s a doozy of a mental crisis, and it usually distills down to The House. More specifically, the messes that characterize The House. Even more specifically, the hours upon vain hours I spend cleaning up the messes that characterize The House under some sort of delusion that it will stay clean. You know, at least for 24 hours.

And now you know how much of a pansy I am. Historically significant elections are going on, my nation is teetering on the brink of economic collapse, war and terrorism are flourishing in the Middle East… and I’m falling into pieces over misplaced loads of laundry and smushed carpet peas. Who knows—maybe The House is just a metaphor for some greater mental tableau I can’t adequately process. I hope I’m that deep.

In some ways, it’s exciting to be in the midst of a breakdown. It means that something is happening, that I could wake up tomorrow with an epiphany or a new superpower. On the other hand, it means I’ve written nary a word in days. It means I feel both aimless and harrowed, and my brain tissue by now is mostly held together with smushed peas. And lemme tell ya—that, combined with soap-splattered clothes and my lack of showering inspiration? Is not a lovely thing.

15Oct

Happiness = Molasses

This:
Baking cabinet
is my culinary art supply cabinet.

Baking cabinet - Top half

Baking cabinet - Bottom half

I tend to bake on the spur of the moment, and I love having a variety of ingredients always standing at attention. For instance, this morning? After waking up from a long insomniac night with a head being clenched in fists of misery, I could whip up some warm molassesey ginger crinkles for breakfast.

Breakfast
Everything is better with molasses.

8Oct

Squandered Therapy

The piano and I have a long history, a tabloid-worthy on again, off again relationship. I started lessons at five years old—I remember having to rest my hands on my teacher’s large doughy ones while she played… yeeeesh—and shortly thereafter, my mother took over. Mom was, and still is, a sought-after piano teacher. She’s great at it. But (you knew there had to be a “but,” right?), I was the one student who didn’t “click” with her methods. I learned to play quite well, but it was a lot like me potty-training Natalie: we got where we needed to get, but the journey was decidedly unpleasant.

At the first possible opportunity in high school, I swore off the piano. Years of unwilling sonatas and scales had left me bitter, hating the instrument and hating that I had the weight of my talent hanging over me for eternity. (Um, I’m ever so slightly melodramatic.) Every time I walked by a piano in college, it taunted me à la that guy who keeps popping out at Happy Gilmore to call him a jackass. “Hey there, yeah just walk to class as if you don’t see me, YOU SQUANDERER!”

But toward the end of my sophomore year, my lovely friend Q convinced me to play a song she had written for the Battle of the Bands. I didn’t entirely hate the feel of keys and petals for once. And by  my junior year, I was playing multiple times a week in a little campus band. It was fun, man, and bore no resemblance to those stuffy mathematical Bach compositions I had grown up on.

Word leaked out that I was playing again—I’m told my mom cried for joy when she heard—and my husband and parents conspired to give me an electronic piano for graduation. I was stunned, in a good way. Mostly. All except for the little urge to run. That poor piano has sat untouched for months at a time since I got it; I’ve worked on a piece here or there but mostly felt guilty. There is no way I could devote those necessary daily hours to practicing, so why bother? (FYI, I often feel the same about working out. And then I squelch my guilt with a brownie.)

However, something has shifted in the last month and I’ve become a piano addict. I never realized what an effective stress reliever was gathering dust across the room. When I run into writer’s block or need a break from chores, I pull out my colorful Peanuts songbook and channel Vince Guaraldi ‘til my fingers tingle and my mind quiets down. It’s my creative outlet when others fail me.

So now I’m thinking hopelessly grown-up, motherly things about my preschooler who loves, loves music and is the [supposedly] perfect age to stick her toes into music theory. Will she hate it? Will she feel indebted to it? Will it seem like opportunity or dead weight? Will she do better starting at a formative age or when she’s old enough to make an educated decision? Will I make a crappy piano teacher? Will music suck away her life… or turn into a beautiful self-therapy? And how important is this all anyway?

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