Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Staying Put


I read a post this week by Sarah Bessey titled, "The Place that Shapes Me," that prompted this post from me. Sarah wonders if there is something to be said for staying put. I agree.

***

I only slept in two different rooms of the same house before I went to college.

I grew up with grandparents a half mile from me, in the house my great-grandparents lived in when my dad was a boy.

There was a secret road—we called it “the field road”—that ran between my house and my cousins’ house that only our two families used.

The road I grew up on still holds memories of the bike riding, tennis playing, and summertime wanderings of my childhood.

When I left that place, I didn’t look back.

I didn’t appreciate. I didn’t savor. I simply headed for the big city, much like George Bailey, shaking the dust of that crummy little town. . . .

***

What I didn’t realize until many years later—too many years—was that that town, that road, that house, held not just my memories, but a part of me. My roots were there, deep.

What I didn’t know was that I couldn’t escape the memories, mostly happy, some sad, nor did I need to.

What I didn’t understand was just how much that place, that one single place, had shaped me.


My dad was a farmer, tied to the land that his grandfather had farmed, maybe even his grandfather before that, and because of that, I was tied too. What I didn’t know was the blessing of being tied to a place.

I grew up restless, as if my home and my town and my life there couldn’t contain me. I wanted out, and I ran as fast as I could as soon as I was able.

I didn’t go far. I didn’t even leave the state. Still haven’t.

The girl who wanted to shake the dust from one place still hasn’t been able to shake it from another.


Years ago my husband and I decided that we would stay put, intentionally. That we would raise our daughters in the same town, the same schools, the same church, the same community so that they, too, would know the blessing of staying put, of laying down roots.

Today, our girls are on the precipice, just spreading those wings for takeoff. The purpose of putting down roots wasn’t to keep them here, but to give them the freedom to fly.

Putting down roots in order to fly . . . an oxymoron if I ever heard one, and yet, there it is. Truth.

Kind of like losing your life so you can gain it.

Truth.

***

So tell me . . . have you put down roots for your kids? Or are you the restless adventurer? Or are you both, like me? What do you think about staying put?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Last Birthday Post--I Promise!



I've been trying to write about my birthday all week, but every time I try to form feeling into words, they all seem so utterly inadequate.

For all those weeks when my husband asked, "What do you want to do for your birthday?" and all the times I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Ignore it,"which was really what I wanted to do, and for all the hours I spent truly agonizing over turning 50, I have been duly humbled.

Frankly, I'm ashamed.

When it finally dawned on me that what I wanted most was to spend the weekend in my favorite place with my favorite people, I could never have imagined how RIGHT that decision would turn out to be. For once, putting my foot down (about the party) actually paid off.

My people were all I needed.

They spoiled me, folks. Truly spoiled me.

Here, take a look.

From the swankity-swank of the hotel . . .


to the walks along the beach . . .


to a night at the theater . . .


to the amazing food we encountered all weekend . . .


. . . every minute was perfect.

Our three beauties joined us for dinner on Saturday night.



Wait. Did I say beauties? "Goofballs" is more like it.




Even the restaurant made me feel special!


By the time B and I packed up to go home on Sunday, I told him that I felt like I had been gone for a week, so relaxing was our time in the city. 

The definition of spoiled? Me.

Definitely me.

When I got home this week, I got this wonderful note from a dear friend, and it boosted my spirits even more:
"Well . . . was turning 50 as horrific as you thought? As I approach the next decade marker, I realize that the 50s have been a particularly sweet time of life--marriages of children, grandchildren's arrivals, time to give to others, richness in marriage. All in all, I would say the 50s rock."
See? Spoiled! To have friends like that who take the time to encourage me in that way makes me feel so blessed. 

I think she's right, and I'm ready to experience this sweet time of life, thanks to the love of so many friends and family. You have all cheered me to this milestone, and for that I am so grateful.

May I spend the next 50 years cheering you on as you have cheered me.

Let the Year of Jubilee begin!

P.S. Lest you think I'm crazy to even think I'd be able to spend the next 50 years cheering on my friends, let me remind you that my grandma almost made it to 100 (she was just three months shy). I realized this week that I'm only halfway there--something more to celebrate!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

It's Not Really a Birthday Until Someone Starts to Cry


They say to pay attention to what makes you cry. Because what makes you cry is probably something you’re most passionate about.

Well.

I’ve got to tell you something embarrassing.

I almost cried in front of my class yesterday.

And it surprised the heck out of me. Seriously.

Most mornings (not every day, because I’m not super-consistent about anything in my life, but most) I start class with a short devotional thought. Sometimes I’ll read a psalm or some Frederick Buechner, but toward the end of the semester, when we've gotten to know each other better, I like to read portions of a little book by Anna Quindlen called “A Short Guide to a Happy Life.” In the book, Quindlen encourages her readers to look around at the gift that life really is, and that's what I want my students to remember when they leave my classroom. I read a small section of the book and follow it up with some Scripture that seems to correspond to what she’s saying.


I like it. It works for me. (Hopefully it works for my students.)

Anyway, yesterday I was reading a section and totally had to stop for a second to let my throat catch up with my brain. It could be that I hadn’t slept the night before (I woke up at 3:30, my brain on fire) or it could be that I’m turning 50 this week. I don’t know. I was feeling a little emotional going into class in the first place, but then when I read this, I almost lost it.

In front of 18 college students.

What a dork.

Anyway, here’s what Anna Quindlen said in the portion of her little book that I read yesterday:
          “I learned to live many years ago. Something really bad happened to me, something that changed my life in ways that, if I had had a choice, it would never have been changed at all. And what I learned from it is what, today, sometimes seems to be the hardest lesson of all.
            I learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that this is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get.”

I had to stop reading for a minute as my throat started to close. Yes, I could relate to having something really bad happen to me. The lessons I’ve learned from that are too many to count.

But it was “this is not a dress rehearsal, and . . . today is the only guarantee you get” that really got to me.

Pay attention to what makes you cry.

Why would this truth, on this day, make me choke up?

I think it's because I’ve spent too many days rehearsing for this big birthday, playing it over and over in my mind, griping and complaining about getting older, when what I should have been doing is celebrating the fact that I’m here, I’m healthy, I’m whole.

I’m here. I’m healthy. I’m whole.

God is good.

Most mornings when my alarm goes off, I stumble across the room toward the shower. This morning, however, I woke up a couple of minutes before my alarm with a song ringing in my head. It’s not even a song I’ve ever paid much attention to, but there it was.

“I want to live
like there’s no tomorrow.
Love like I’m on borrowed time.
It’s good to be alive.”

Coincidence? Probably not.

Just God’s way of showing me that He’s here and that He knows what this week, this searching, this celebrating, means to me.

Oh, yes, God is good.

***
If you want to hear the whole song (the video is kinda goofy, but the song is good), click here.




Now tell me, what makes you choke up?

Monday, April 15, 2013

No Two Ways Around It--I'm Turning 50 This Week


I brushed my hair from my face this morning, tucking it behind my ear, and noticed the silver at my temples. Rather than thinking the usual “time to get my hair colored,” I took a good, long look and smiled.

And I turned slightly to see the gray reflected from a different angle.

A wonder, aging.

Something I’ve given a lot of thought in recent weeks.

I’m aging. A birthday is coming. One I cannot hold back, even though I would certainly like to. One I have tried to ignore, but one that is knocking, knocking, knocking.


Last week, during lunch with a student, I confessed that my birthday was coming and that, despite all my protestations, it was coming fast. She just laughed and told me that her aunt always said that getting older is sure better than the alternative.

She’s a wise one, that student.

***

My husband has been asking me for weeks what I’d like to do to celebrate. Since I haven’t considered this much of an event to be celebrated, I just replied, “Ignore it.”

It’s the closest thing to how I feel.

And yet, I can’t. Ignore it.

It’s coming whether I like it or not.

In fact, it’s here.

On Saturday, I will be 50.

***

I remember turning 20—so much fun, a lifetime of surprises ahead of me.

And at 30, standing in front of the mirror, one child on my hip. Wondering how I had gotten there, and observing how much I had changed in a decade.

I barely remember 40. Three kids by then. Crazy life. Reflecting on the chaos of my 30s and thinking that the 40s had to be better.

They were.

***

And now, 50. I’ve been standing in front of the mirror for weeks now, amazed at how my life has changed.

Feeling so. incredibly. grateful.

And when I look at it that way, with a heart filled with gratitude, I have to think that the 50s will hold good, good things.

***

For months I’ve been dreading my birthday, but if I’m really honest, that’s just vanity talking. It’s been me focusing on graying hair, flabby arms, extra weight.


My friend, Robin, turned 50 a couple of weeks ago (lots and lots of friends will turn 50 this year!), and she did something I have not been able to do: she embraced it. She celebrated. She dressed up and danced and found the grace to face a new decade and say, “Bring it.”

And she encouraged me with these words from Scripture:

“This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and celebration . . .” (Leviticus 25:10 CEV)

Isn’t that awesome?!

Sacred. Freedom. Celebration.

This week I’m going to reflect. I’m going to write. I’m going to try to reconcile myself to the fact that I’m 50 and to try to figure out what that means for me.

And at the end of the week, we'll celebrate.

Will you join me? If you’re already 50, will you tell me it’s not so bad? If you’re turning 50 soon, will you tell me how you’re handling it? If you’re not even close, go put on your skinny jeans and dance in the rain.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What I've Learned from Student Evaluations


Students ask the darndest questions sometimes. Like the sophomore guy—a guy!—who asked me last week how old I was when I got married and how long my husband and I waited to have kids. Hilarious.

(I answered him, by the way. No need to keep my students in the dark about my personal life.)

Another student, also a guy but not in my class, asked me recently about how I felt about student evaluations. Did I even read them? Did I learn anything from them?

I had to hesitate before I answered because I have some serious past baggage with student evaluations.

***

After taking a five-year hiatus from teaching, I returned to the classroom in August of 2011. I’ll admit, I was nervous. Throughout the entire semester I wondered what my students thought of me.

O.K., I obsessed.

I was well aware that I was five years older than the last time I had taught. Would they just see me as a mother figure? Would they think I was dumb? Out of touch? Not on top of my teaching game?

Heck, I wondered the same things about myself.

I had a whole lot of doubts that followed me around like a lost puppy that first semester.

So when evaluations came back to me after the semester had ended, I was devastated to read that a couple of students really hated me. Devastated.

O.K., I cried.

I just stared at the comments, wondering if I would ever be able to put myself in front of a group of overly-critical, picky, self-absorbed, entitled students again. If my office had a window in it, I probably would have climbed out of it and fled, never to return.



I called my husband and said, “I should never have come back.”

He very wisely asked, “Shelly, did you get any good evaluations?”

“Well, yes.”

“What did those say?” he asked.

I don’t really remember much about those evaluations any more, but I do remember one thing: my students, pretty much across the board, felt like I cared about them as individuals and that I wanted to see them succeed.

What more could I ask for?

Apparently, a lot more.

Because the next semester, I couldn’t even look at my evaluations. They came to me in an email, and I deleted it before even looking at them.

What can I say? I’m weak.

And prideful.

And seriously uninformed.

Last fall, I decided to take a new approach to student evaluations. After giving myself a mental pep talk and a virtual kick in the pants, I decided that 1) I needed to grow up, 2) that I would read the evaluations but that 3) I wouldn’t take them too seriously.

I knew by then which students loved me and would give me a glowing evaluation no matter what. And as much as I’d love to stay in Neverland and read only those remarks about me, I knew they weren’t that helpful.

I also knew which students pretty much hated me. These were the students who didn’t work hard enough to get the grade they felt they deserved (remember the entitled ones?) or who felt it really wasn’t that rude to consider class time their personal nap time or (my personal favorite) to knit while I was talking. (Oh yes she did!) I knew what would be coming from those students, and I braced myself.

That semester I read every evaluation, every comment, no matter how much they skewered my pride, and did this: I threw out the really glowing reports at the top of the scale along with the really nasty reports at the bottom. I focused on the evaluations that fell somewhere in the middle—those that had some good things to say along with some constructive criticisms.

And that’s where I really started to learn what worked and what didn’t in my class. I’ve made changes based on the evaluations that landed somewhere in the middle.

Honestly? I wish my students didn’t have to evaluate me every semester. Because I pretty much know what’s coming. I know that some days I drone on and on like Charlie Brown’s teacher and that on some days my classes seem like a never-ending glut of boring, regurgitated information. (I’m working on that.) I know I don’t always start every class with an inspiring word from the Lord (I teach at a Christian college), but I’ve come to grips with that too.

Hey, you can’t always be inspiring at 8:00 in the morning.

And I know that I’m not the best professor they’ve ever had. A lot of factors come into play here, not the least of these is the subject matter. (Who knew that some kids just don’t like writing?!) But I’m O.K. with that. I work very hard to present the information to my students in the best way I can, and I feel good about the work I do.

What I also know is that I am a teacher who cares very much about her students and who wants to see them succeed, and my evaluations consistently bear that out. If a student doesn’t ever get the importance of the Oxford comma but knows that I cared enough to meet with her outside of the classroom for thirty minutes each week, I’m good with that.

***

So my response to the student who asked me how I felt about evaluations? I told him I’ve learned that some people will love you and some people will hate you. It’s important to not waste energy obsessing over it.

I’ve learned, instead, to look at how the people in the middle evaluate me—the people who take the time to see me for who I am, to listen to what I'm really saying, to care enough to respond with thoughtful comments—those are the ones that really matter.

Good advice for life? I think so.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Book Review: Bread and Wine AND Fabulous Friday Food: Cassoulet


You guys know I love food, right?

And you know I love to travel, right?

Find me a book that combines a love for both, and you’ve got me at hello.

Hello, Shauna Niequist!

Shauna has just this week released her third book, Bread and Wine, and I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy to review. Let me tell you, I devoured this book. As in, I was so hungry to read it and to keep reading it that I had a hard time putting it down.

This is a memoir, as are all of Shauna’s books. (Her others, which I have also read, are Cold Tangerines and Bittersweet—both very good.) But this one’s a memoir that involves food and cooking and a little bit of travel.

Right up my alley. 

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the book. It’s a little long, so hold on for a minute:

“I hold all these places and flavors with me, like a fistful of shiny coins, like a charm bracelet. I want to be everywhere at once. I want a full English breakfast at a pub in London, and hot buttery naan in New Delhi for lunch. I want conch fritters at a beach bar in the Bahamas, and an ice-cold Fanta overlooking Lake Victoria. I want Cowgirl Creamery’s Triple Crème Brie at the Ferry Market in San Francisco, and the gingerbread pancakes from Magnolia Café in Austin. I want it all—all the tastes, all the smells, all the stories and memories and traditions, all the textures and flavors and experiences, all running down my chin, all over my fingers.
            Sometimes people ask me why I travel so much, and specifically why we travel with Henry so often. I think they think it’s easier to keep the kids at home, in their routines, surrounded by their stuff. It is. But we travel because it’s there. . . . We travel because I want my kids to learn, as I learned, that there are a million ways to live, a million ways to eat, a million ways to dress and speak and view the world. . . .
            I want my kids to learn firsthand and up close that different isn’t bad, but instead that different is exciting and wonderful and worth taking the time to understand.” (page 87)

There. She has fully articulated one of the wonders of travel with kids. I love that!

Besides interesting, thought-provoking stories about her life and faith, Shauna fills her book with amazing recipes. I can’t wait to try her recipe for Sweet Potato Fries with Sriracha Dipping Sauce or Esquites/Mexican Grilled Corn which is taken from one of my absolutely, positively, MOST FAVORITE Mexican restaurant: Bien Trucha in Geneva, IL. (I was pretty excited when she mentioned that one.)

And if all that hasn’t convinced you to get the book and read it, I’ve got a bonus for you: a Fabulous Friday Food post featuring one of Shauna’s recipes.

Today we’re making Real Simple Cassoulet from Bread and Wine.

I’ve wanted to try making cassoulet since my husband had it at his very special birthday dinner back in January. He raved about this simple, classic French dish made with meat and beans. Wouldn’t you know, just a couple of weeks after that dinner, I’d be reading Shauna’s book. And wouldn’t you know that she would actually give me a recipe for cassoulet that didn’t seem too intimidating or difficult.

In fact, it was EASY! Not only that, it was delicious. My husband absolutely loved it and commented on it for a long time after that meal. In fact, I think he put it in his top-five-of-all-time favorite recipes. That’s how much he liked it.

After dinner he said, “That one’s a keeper.”

So here we go, making a “keeper.” Hopefully you’ll try this one and put it in your top five list too.

First, assemble your ingredients. You'll need olive oil, Italian sausage (here's where I deviated just a little from Shauna's original recipe--she used turkey sausage, but I used the real thing), chicken broth, onion, carrots, parsnips, tomato, cannellini beans, thyme, garlic, bread crumbs, parsley, and butter. It seems like a lot of ingredients, and it is, but if you do all of your chopping ahead of time, this baby will come together really quickly.

Side note: I had never cooked with parsnips before. Never even bought one. But, I've gotta say, I will definitely be using them in the future. They are kind of sweet, very interesting, and yummy. 


Brown the sausage in the olive oil in a large Dutch oven until it's almost crispy on the outside. You need some of the brown drippings in the bottom of the pan to give the cassoulet its rich flavor.


Remove the sausage from the pan and add the onion, carrots, and parsnips. Brown these for a few minutes to soften the vegetables and add flavor. (Oh, O.K., I deviated from her recipe here too. Shauna said to add the chicken stock here, but I sauteed the vegetables first. Sorry!)


Now go ahead and add the stock, tomato, beans, garlic, thyme, and the sausage. Salt and pepper too. 


Bring all of this to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pot, and allow to simmer for about one hour. Your cassoulet should be thickened and the vegetables nice and tender.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs, parsley, and butter and sprinkle over the cassoulet. Bake, uncovered, until the crust is golden brown, about 10-15 minutes.

And voila! You have a delicious, comforting dish to warm the hearts of your friends and family.


I served this with a green salad and some French bread. Yum! And now I want more. 

I hope you'll try this one. It was so delicious. And, as my husband says, it's a keeper.

Thanks, Shauna! 

Now tell me, have you read Shauna Niequist's book yet? Do you think you'll try to make cassoulet? What are you cooking this weekend?

***
For a printable version of this recipe, click here.

To purchase Shauna's book on Amazon, click here.

To subscribe to my blog (oh, how I wish you would!), sign up over there ------>

***
Disclaimer: I received a copy of Bread and Wine in exchange for this blog post. All the views expressed here are entirely my own.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

On My Mind

Thinking all day about starting a blog post, but there are so many things swimming around in my head that I just need to blurt out the mess to make room for the rest.

Today will not be one of those deep-post days.

Today will be more like a here-sit-down-and-have-a-cup-of-coffee day. It's just one of those days that I need to get my thoughts out so I can move on and write other stuff.

I've realized that I don't let you in too much. As in, into my life. And I don't like that. I really want you to know me and to know what's going on in my life. I flatter myself to think that maybe you read here because you're interested. I don't know.

Or maybe you just like my recipes--who knows?

Anyway, maybe this post is a way of letting you know some things about me. It's not like my life is some huge secret or anything. There are, however, people in my life who would prefer that I keep some things to myself. I get that. And I try to.

Sometimes.

So here we go. Some things that I want you to know about me.

** You know I teach, right? Thinking about teaching and actually going into work three days a week are probably what consume most of my thoughts these days. It shouldn't feel as busy as it does, and that frustrates me sometimes. Here's what my Monday/Wednesday/Fridays look like:

5:30 a.m. - wake up, stumble to the shower, get ready for my day

7:00 a.m. - take Julia to school, then head into my office

9:15 a.m. - teach my class

10:30-? - read, grade papers, prep for next class

I usually try to finish up around 12:30 when I either head home or meet my friends for lunch (a regular Wednesday thing). Afternoons are my time to run errands, walk the dog, write (oh, the ongoing angst about THAT), make dinner.

Right now I only teach one class, but in the fall I'll have two. Which will make my thoughts even more swirly and discombobulated.

But it's all good because I love my job and get to teach the most amazing group of college students ever. I'm confident that God has called me to it for now, and that makes it all worthwhile.

** One bummer about my job is that my spring break doesn't line up with Julia's, so every year we have to figure out what to do about that. This year we decided to pull her out of school for three days and high tail it out of here. (She's still making up the work she missed!)

But it was so great to be in the Florida sunshine, even for a short while.


Here's my honey and me. Twenty-eight years--totally worth it.


** In other thought-consuming news, B and I purchased a rental home near the college this year. We haven't done much with it yet since we still have renters, but the townhome is in need of, shall we say, a leeettle bit of work. This summer my job will be to completely restore that house, including replacing all of the flooring on the first floor (don't worry, it's not that big) and painting the entire place. And, yes, I plan to do much of the work myself in order to save money.

Call me crazy.

Just do. Because I think I am.

And I'm spending way too many hours thinking about paint colors.

** My sister had a baby! Amazing and delicious all rolled into one. And so sublime because we haven't had a new baby on my side of the family in, oh, 15 years. It's all very exciting.

I'm especially excited because this weekend I'm flying to Dallas to meet my newest niece, Gracie (do you not just LOVE that name?!). I'm not sure you'll be able to pry her out of my arms for the 48 hours I'll be there.

** I spend a lot of time thinking about and praying for my kids. Both of my college girls came home for Easter weekend and we all had a great time together. It gave me a glimpse into what our summer will be like since, for the first time in about four years, everyone will be home. Just a hunch, but it's going to be loud, boisterous, talkative, and full of laughter.

Here's our little Easter brunch right before church.



Easter was a little different for us this year because it was also Kate's 21st birthday.

Happy birthday, lovie!


So we said we'd celebrate Easter in the morning and that after noon it would be all about Kate's birthday. It worked for us.

** Speaking of birthdays, I have the next birthday in our family which is something that consumes way too much of my thought life. I don't have time to write about right now--this birthday is going to take a post of its own because it's a big one and I have thoughts.

** As I write I'm listening to Julia practice piano. Difficult strains of an unfamiliar Debussy piece are floating through our house. She's struggled with one line for weeks now, and last night, after her piano lesson, she cried out in frustration that she didn't think she would EVER get it right. I told her to hang in there, to not give up, and that one day it would just click and she'd get it.

Just now, over the music she shouted, "That's it!"

These are the moments I love being a parent the most.

**Last thing: be sure to come back on Friday because if you're one of those don't-care-about-your-life-but-you-give-me-good-recipes people you are really going to be happy. AND it involves a book review. Bonus!

There. Brain dump is completed. Maybe now I can move on and actually write something.

That's what's on my mind, what's on YOURS?