Author Archives: Elle P

Wisely Wasting Time

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I have a little inspirational card set sitting on my kitchen window sill – I switch the card every morning.  Some are “keepers”  as my husband calls them.   Others don’t seem as meaningful.  But I always think about its message through the day – when I glance out the window to see the birds at the feeder, when I grab a glass of water, when I wash the dishes.  And there’s something about that,  those unintentional reminders, that I like.

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This morning’s quote was:
Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.
– Auguste Rodin

I pondered it as I wasted the entire morning making a cake to bring to my parents.  I had contemplated just buying something from a bakery instead. It definitely would have been quicker, it definitely would have been easier, and as for tastiness – well, that would remain to be seen.

But I had committed to using the left over chestnut cream that was taking up space in my parents’ freezer.  It was a creation that my aunt was adamant about making with my ailing father when she came for a visit.  She had wanted my parents to use & enjoy this taste from my father’s childhood in Italy.  It seemed so important for her to share it. It was what help she could give – a little part of herself – to help in a hopeless situation. She didn’t just make food, she imbued it with every bit of hope and caring that she could.  Unfortunately, with my father’s illness, my parents just haven’t been able to muster the energy to do anything with it.

So, there I was this morning trying to figure out what the heck I could do with chestnut cream, a sweet, somewhat unusual tasting, slightly watery paste that I’ve never had in my life.

I spent hours on the cake, literally hours…

There was so much more I should have been doing.  I should have been paying the bills.  I should have been doing laundry.  I should have been exercising.  I should have been digging into my grad work.  I should have been pursuing freelancing leads.  I should have been cleaning out the basement…and on and on…

But instead, I wasted time adapting a sponge cake recipe to be layered with chestnut cream and smothered with chocolate ganache.  I stalwartly put all those things I should have been doing out of my mind as best I could.  After getting the news earlier this week that the cancer my father has been fighting for four years has spread to his bone, I just wanted some time to not think – at least not about anything important.  So, I immersed myself in the baking process and let me mind focus on happier things.

After the cake was baked and layered with the cream, it was finally time for the ganache – the part I had been waiting for.  I followed the simple recipe with some skepticism; I had definite doubts about how well the cream would melt the chocolate.  With whisk in hand, I prepared myself for disappointment as I began to stir.  Amazingly, it worked!  As I stirred, the chocolate smoothly mixed with the cream creating the silky ganache I had hoped for.

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And I found myself thinking:

There, you just have to have faith and see it through.  Things do work out.

And I stopped in my tracks as I was struck by that thought – a comfort during this time of shadows for my family.  I’m realistic – the doctors have been pretty clear about where my father’s illness will ultimately lead him.  But I’m reminded that faith and hope do help see people through hard times, even when there is no happy ending.

So, how was the cake?   Meh…I wasn’t thrilled with the end result.  Honestly, it wasn’t worth the time it took to make it, but I don’t think those hours were truly wasted.  Maybe I didn’t create the dessert I envisioned, but I got much more then that.  I got some quiet time for myself when my mind was able to find a bit of peace in an unlikely moment.  And I’ll try to remember that “things do work out” one way or another.

Contemplating Consequences

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Consequences… Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time contemplating consequences.

We make decisions – or maybe we don’t make decisions – and then we deal with what happens next.   The consequences can be great (yay, us!) or they can be… severe… Or they can be so minimal that we don’t even notice them.   Regardless of the quality of the results,  we can’t cheat them – they’re inescapable.

I’m reminded of this bit of wisdom that I found in some now-forgotten source years and years ago.   I’ve thought about it often through the years & it has helped me put my decisions & their consequences into perspective from time to time.

You might find some meaning in it as well, so I’ve decided to share it… here it is:

There is really nothing you must be.
And there is nothing you must do.
There is really nothing you must have.
And there is nothing you must know.
There is really nothing you must become.
However, it helps to understand that fire burns, and when it rains, the earth gets wet…

– A Zen Scroll

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Suck it up, Cupcake! – A Lesson about “Perfection”

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I’m a great fan of the cupcake.
I’m an even  greater fan of finding wisdom in unexpected places.
~ ~ ~

A CupcakeSeveral years ago, while chatting with a scout leader at a national park, I was lucky enough to find exactly that… the wisdom, not the cupcake.

We were talking about the awful weather we were having & I asked if the scouts were still going to camp out.   He told me that his troop had a saying that summed up those kinds of situations: “Suck it up,  Cupcake!”  The scouts would just have to deal with it – because it was for their own good.

He told me a story about a group vacation he had been on with a few other families.  When they all arrived at the beach resort, they were cautioned about the rip tide that was making swimming unsafe that day.   One of the fathers became furious – he declared he hadn’t come all that way to look at a rip tide and immediately packed his family back into his van and sped off.  If it wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t going to deal with it.

It was at this point that the scout leader (aka my Yoda-like inspirer) imparted this great wisdom that I often think about till this day:  “Things in life aren’t going to be perfect… You’re never going to have a perfect job, or a perfect house, or a perfect relationship. You need to work at things and make your own happiness.   What kind of example would I be setting for my scouts if we just gave up anytime things got a little rough? So I say Suck it up, Cupcake! ”

A Harmed CupcakeI was struck by this wisdom of healthy acceptance & perseverance.  How often do I allow an entire situation to go sour just because it isn’t “perfect”?   What minutia do I succumb to that ruins what should be fun or good or rewarding?  Sadly, this happens much more than it should… But I’m working on it.

As for cupcakes – well, I must inform you that one cupcake was harmed in the making of this blog post… It might not have been the perfect cupcake, but it was still good – and that was good enough.

Who knew wisdom could taste so sweet?

Why I own a tiara & why you should too.

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OK… Stop rolling your eyes & hear me out…

Yes, I do own a tiara, but it’s not of my own doing.   I received it as a gift this past Christmas from my friend Cole.    I have to admit that when I opened the box on Christmas morning, I squealed like a child with delight – how wonderful to get such an unexpected surprise as an adult.   To receive such a frivolous gift – so charged with all kinds of childhood daydreams – was pure joy.

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Cole told me she found the glimmering object in a thrift shop and I find myself wondering about the history of this particular overblown piece of princess-hood.  It’s certainly been used.   The missing stones & scratches attest to it. Was it from a prom?   Maybe a gag gift for bachelorette party?  A part of some other celebration?   Who knows?  

What I do know is that I’m giving it my own bit of history & meaning – imbuing it with all the good stuff of life that I can.  I see it as a reminder that I am precious in my life – when you get down to it, I am all that I have & it’s up to me to take care of myself & create the best life I can, a life that brings whatever unique value I can bring.

Sometimes I think we all need to be reminded of how truly precious our lives are.   It’s worth taking care of ourselves.   It’s worth making things in our lives special and being able to have more of ourselves to give to those we love. 

Something like a tiara, as a reminder to take care of ourselves so we can be our best for others,  is not such a bad thing.

So, yes,  I  do own tiara
… And you should too.

The Nature of Looking Up

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The other day, as I worked in the barn, I noticed a trapped barn swallow flying helplessly back and forth through the rafters, futilely looking for the way out.   With alarmed chirps, it kept returning to the quatrefoil window set high up in the gable.   I understood what was happening – that was the highest opening and light streamed through it.   It was in the swallow’s nature to seek it out for escape.   The window had been sealed off with wire years ago.   So the frightened bird would just perch on a section of the wire and look out into the world it was so desperate to rejoin.   

There were a few small openings in the barn that were large enough for a little bird to pop right through, but those were closer to the floor and the swallow was focused on the highest points – always looking upwards.   I realized just how many ways it could escape if only it would look lower, but the barn swallow couldn’t help it – looking up was in its nature.  Every so often, I would hear its chirps and catch a glimpse of it making another flight around the rafters, vainly seeking its freedom.

As I worked, I worried and fretted to myself about the fate of this little trapped bird.  I attempted to help it in what ways I could and opened the entrance for stretches of time to provide a way out.   The trapped swallow would make its rounds high above me, but it never made it to that open doorway.  I talked to it, tried to reason with it, explained the ways it could escape, but, of course, that was silly, foolish, ridiculous – a childlike attempt to help.

High up in the barn

I’d observe the swallow again and again as it perched at that quatrefoil window, so close to what it was seeking.   And I’d feel a twinge of sadness watching this little creature as it watched the outside world.   I wondered if it knew the hopelessness of its situation – did it sense what this meant?   Its instincts that had helped it survive were now failing it.   The swallow didn’t consider coming down to the ground when it was part of its very being to stay up high.  It couldn’t help it, it was in its nature.

Before I left for the day, I tried one more silly pep talk about how it could escape and promised to return in the morning.   As I closed and locked the door, sealing the barn swallow off from what seemed to be its best chance of escape, I felt a sinking feeling, reluctant to accept the harsher realities of life, as always.

The next morning, I opened the barn door with a mixture of hope and apprehension.  I called out to rouse the swallow, but no answering chirps followed.  I turned on the lights and sought out the bird.  I looked up to the quatrefoil window last, dreading that I would see the swallow so hopelessly perched there, not wanting to revisit that sadness of watching it as it watched the world.

Relief…a little joy…renewed hope for good things…the swallow wasn’t there!

It had escaped at some point. Maybe it was finally able to find whatever little hole it had entered through high up in the rafters.  Or maybe it actually was in its nature to look down when it really needed to, after all.  I walked out of the barn with a sense relief and peace and hope about the nature of things.

On the walk back to the museum, I noticed a little dark shape on the ground along the path.  It was a dead barn swallow.

My spirit revolted at the senselessness of the whole situation.  Was there some lesson to be learned here…something about cruel twists of fate or death not being cheated or a balance being kept? Or maybe it was less ominous – a lesson about learning to accept life’s realities and what’s beyond our control or understanding.

I don’t know…I really don’t…

What I do know is this:  I’m beginning to dread that barn.

Of Mice & Me

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A revelation can begin with something as simple as this:
mice are hungry little creatures and, apparently, they like play-dough.

I’m not sure if this holds true for the name brand play-dough that you buy in the store – the stuff with that fantastic scent that brings you straight back to your childhood.  But I do know this holds true for a homemade concoction using oil and flour.   I know this because the organization I work for uses dried homemade play-dough as “meat” in their general store, part of a series of hands-on exhibits housed in an old barn on the property.   The barn is a really neat building with great atmosphere, complete with barn swallows nesting in the outside rafters and mice nesting wherever they see fit.

So, this leads us back to the fake “meat.”  It’s wrapped in butcher’s paper, tied with twine, and kept in a tray on the 20-foot counter.   The label of what’s inside is handwritten on the paper and the total effect is appropriately old-timey.   When I ventured into the barn the other day, I saw that some mice had gotten into the “meat.”  The paper wrapping was shredded & the carefully formed chicken leg shapes were merely shadows of their former selves.  So this had been, what, the third or fourth time this had happened?

Now, in my defense, I had a headache that day, one that had been hanging on for over a day and a half.  So I was worn out and grumpy and, well, prickly.  In my mind I threw my own little hissy fit – really, how many times was this going to happen before we started doing this differently?   It was a known issue, solutions as simple as keeping the stuff in a tin when not in use were discussed, and yet, here I was, dumping the packages & scrubbing out the tray.  New batches of dough would have to be made, formed, dried, and wrapped by a willing volunteer – yet again.

As I stood at the sink indulging in my own grumpiness, a disturbing thought occurred to me. How many times in my life have I done the same thing? I’m not talking about the play-dough – that would be zero times. I’m talking about doing something that doesn’t work over and over again. Even at this moment, what am I doing that experience tells me is not going to work? How many times do I stubbornly repeat the same actions and then complain, yes – even whine, when, true to the wisdom of the ages, history repeats itself? What magic am I expecting?

There’s a famous quote by Henry Ford that I’ve heard applied to everything from corporate initiatives to career paths to exercise and weight loss:

If you always do what you’ve always done,
you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

Ain’t it the truth…

Lessons Learned from Coffee Grounds

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Because, really, where can you find
life’s answers if not in coffee?
….    

Coffee in a Favorite CupI usually drink a cup of coffee every night.  I use one my favorite little Blue Willow cups – think classic diner meets the Orient.

Generally, it’s a pleasant experience, but the other night, as I stirred my fat-free half-and-half into my coffee, I noticed a dark fleck swirling around on the surface, a little fleck of coffee grounds.  I dipped the spoon in to catch it, but it slipped below the surface.  So, I waited for one second, then two, three…but the stubborn little thing didn’t come back up.  I stuck the spoon in and gave things a stir.  Aha!  The fleck reappeared.  But just as before, that determined fleck sunk down out of view when I almost had it with my spoon’s reach.  Yet again, I waited for the fleck to re-surface, but when the liquid stopped swirling there was still no sign of the fleck.  So I tried one more stir…The fleck reappeared and I waited for the right moment, like waiting for the right time to jump-in when playing Stir things up...jump rope as a kid.

Alright, fleck or coffee ground or single grind or whatever you call yourself, I have you now!

And, you know what?  I did – out came that little fleck in the bowl of my spoon.

At some point during this seemingly meaningless task, it struck me that it was a lot like life in general.  Sometimes, you lose sight of what you want – it slips below the surface and falls out of reach.  You can stand there and wait…and wait some more.  But waiting around for something to happen doesn’t bring back what you want.  Sometimes, you just have to stir things up and get things moving.

Things might get a bit choppy, coffee might be spilled, but it’s worth it – if only for one more chance…