April Book Report

April had all the things: Last-minute client work! Another round of colds for the kids! A historic blizzard! A new baby! 

Those last two things happened in the same weekend. Baby Conlin arrived happy and healthy a week early on Friday the 13th, just as the blizzard was turning from freezing rain into snow. I was also a spring snowstorm baby, so it's basically a family tradition now! Conlin and his big sisters are all doing well, and I'm adjusting better to baby #3 than I have during any other postpartum season. 

That's probably why my reading didn't dip too much, even with a new baby on the scene. Which book did I love, which books were meh, and which book didn't I finish? Right this way to the April book report! 

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The Road Back to You by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile

 

Deep reading category: Makes me think; teaches me something specific

Star rating: 5 stars

I'm a huge personality framework nerd (you can get all the details on that in this Chasing Creative episode about personality and creativity). The typing system I'm getting the most out of these days is hands down the Enneagram. Because the Enneagram has been around for thousands of years and is steeped in spiritual tradition, it's an incredible tool for not only becoming more self-aware but for actually doing something about the way we see the world and interact with other people.

Unfortunately, that rich history also means the Enneagram is complicated. That's where The Road Back to You comes in. It's not the first Enneagram book I've loved, but it is the best starting point I've found for anyone who wants to dip their toe into the Enneagram without getting totally overwhelmed. The authors do an excellent job at connecting each type with anecdotes about actual people so you can see each type in action. Another highlight is the lists at the beginning and end of each chapter to help you identify your type and begin moving toward a healthier version of yourself.

Bottom line: It's a must-read for personality geeks or those interested in self-improvement or spiritual transformation. You can also listen to the authors' podcast to get a feel for the Enneagram before diving into the book.

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

Deep reading category: Makes me think; has outstanding writing

Star rating: 3 stars

The house on Yarrow Street has seen the Turner's thirteen children raised and grown. But after fifty years as the Turners' residence, the house is now worth far less than its mortgage thanks to the declining Detroit housing market. With the family matriarch in failing health and each of the Turner children facing problems of their own, the family has to make a hard decision about the future of the home, even as it brings up painful memories of the past.

This is one of those literary fiction books that doesn't feel too high-brow. It's easily readable and incredibly well written; I especially appreciated the realistic dialogue and complex family dynamics. The description may focus on the house's upside-down mortgage, but that's just the framework for the real point of the story: the way various characters have carried their pasts with them into the future, and the impact of racial disparity on the entire city of Detroit. 

Bottom line: Despite such good qualities, The Turner House was a slow read that I never felt like I HAD to finish. I struggled to power through it, especially with my mind distracted by little things like my impending labor.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: N/A, did not finish

The summer of 1969 begins as boring as any other---until the four Gold children hear a rumor that a psychic has come to town. Even better, she can tell anyone the date of their death. Curiosity gets the best of the siblings, and they each spend the remainder of their lives holding her predictions in their minds as they try to spend their days well.

This new release has gotten a lot of buzz and good reviews, so I was excited to see if it lived up to expectations. Unfortunately, it did not. After the opening scene, the book follows each sibling individually until the date of his or her death. I only made it through the first two before giving up. The writing was well done, but I didn't particularly like any of the characters or the choices they were making. There was also some sexually explicit content I didn't think needed to be there. (As Modern Mrs. Darcy would say, the book needed an 8-line edit.) 

Bottom line: Despite the theme of self-fulfilling prophecies, which always intrigues me, I'm voting hard pass on this one.

Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Deep reading category: N/A, pure fluff

Star rating: 3 stars

Jessie's life isn't exactly stellar after her mom dies, but when her dad drags her across the country to live in Los Angeles after he elopes with a near-stranger less than two years later . . . well, let's just say she's less than excited for junior year at her new prep school. Just when Jessie is sure she'll never fit in, she gets an anonymous email from Somebody/Nobody offering to be her spirit guide to Wood Valley High. It isn't long before she's falling for her anonymous friend. But is SN really who she thinks he is? 

I give myself a few exceptions to my deep reading aspirations, and the months after having a baby are one of them. This YA novel was unadulterated fluff, perfect for nursing a baby in the middle of the night. There was a lot to love about Tell Me Three Things. It could easily have been a five-star book if it weren't for a few downsides: 

  1. Jessie constantly makes negative comments about her appearance, including everything from her weight to her acne. Normal portrayal of teenage insecurity is okay with me, but a never-ending stream of unflattering self-talk that doesn't end until a guy tells her she's beautiful? Not cool.
  2. The whole premise of this book was the mystery of SN's real identity (which was pretty predictable from the start). I wasn't exactly on pins and needles waiting to find out who SN was, so it was disappointing when the book ended almost immediately after the two meet in person. I would've liked the meeting to be a little earlier so readers actually got to see their relationship develop beyond the screen.

Bottom line: Not bad as far as fluff goes, but it's nowhere near some of my favorite YA reads.

What are your favorite fluff books?

Let me know in the comments! I'll need a few more to get me through these hazy postpartum days. And of course, summer is the best time for fluff. :)

Catch up on what else I've been reading this year in my past book reports.

5 Good Things that Happened When I Gave Up Podcasts

For the first time as an adult, I made a conscious decision to give something up and take something up for Lent. I spent the 40 days before Easter setting aside the endless chatter of podcasts and taking up the spiritual practice of contemplative prayer.

(And no, the irony of being a podcast host who gave up listening to podcasts isn't lost on me.)

I've been listening to podcasts since way before they were a thing (circa 2010), but things really kicked up a notch in 2014. This was both the year Hadley was born and the time that podcasts started becoming more mainstream.

Transitioning into motherhood was tough for me. Hadley wasn't the world's easiest baby, and my emotions were all over the place. I felt like I'd lost myself as a person for much of her first year.

Podcasts filled a void for me during those early days with a baby. They gave me a hands-free way to stay connected to the outside world, to remember the things I was interested in as a person. If I'm being honest? On my worst days, I used podcasts to escape from the real, hard work of taking care of a baby.

Eventually that tough season ended and I adjusted to motherhood, then adjusted again when Reagan was born. But the podcasts never left. I listened to them more than ever, particularly business podcasts. With two kids and no child care, I was drowning in work and unwilling to step back from the career I'd worked so hard to build.

Listening to business podcasts was a way to feel like I was "working" even when I wasn't. They gave me a twisted hope that I could keep building and growing in an area where I was already stretched too thin.

I eventually got smart enough to realize that business podcasts weren't healthy for me anymore, and I cut them out of my feed last summer . . . only to replace them with even more shows, particularly those about motherhood and running a household. 


Is it clear yet that I don't know when I've taken a good thing too far? 

I entered this Lenten season feeling frantic. I'd cut back on work, so why was life still crazy? Why was I still snapping at my kids all the time and never feeling like I had a chance to sit down? 

My constant podcast listening was a huge factor. It's like I thought that listening to other moms talk about raising their kids counted toward me mothering my kids . . . when in reality, I was ignoring them.

It's one thing to have a podcast to keep you sane when you're nursing a baby for the millionth time in a day. It's another when that baby is suddenly a preschooler with her own thoughts and ideas and questions about the world.

My kids are now at an age where they don't just need me to keep them alive, they need me: my focus, my energy, my time. 

These things are hard for me to give, and for too long I've been using podcasts as a barrier between myself and the messy day-to-day with young kids. The result is that I've unintentionally been sending the message "I don't want to talk to you" to these little people in my care.

With all that in mind, I shouldn't be surprised that giving up podcasts brought an immediate change to our family. These are just some of the good things that have come from a Lent without podcasts.

1. We listen to more music.

Music doesn't demand as much space as a podcast. It feels like another way to infuse our day with art, and the kids love it. Now there are Disney music dance parties, shuffling around the kitchen to old country songs while we make dinner, and soothing piano tunes to calm the kids when they're getting rambunctious. Where podcasting was a solitary activity I was trying to cram where it didn't belong, music connects us and sets the mood throughout the day.

2. I have fewer ideas and more clarity.

Having fewer ideas is 100% a good thing for me. I've always been an idea person. If I'm not careful, I'll end up chasing projects that aren't right for me and getting distracted from what actually matters. Podcasts fed into that in a big way as I listened to the innovating things other moms and entrepreneurs were making time for. How could I not have a million ideas when I spent all day listening to other people talk passionately about the crazy dreams they were bringing to life?

But those million ideas weren't all meant for me. My brain was working in overdrive trying to think through the logistics of things that shouldn't have even been on my radar. I've had markedly fewer ideas since giving up podcasts, but the ones I have had have been more focused and aligned with what I actually want from life.

3. I'm more efficient.

Listening to a podcast can be a great way to make chores more fun, but it's still multitasking. Cutting out podcasts made me realize that I'd been subconsciously folding clothes more slowly so I could hear more of my episode before turning it off, or reading a recipe three times because I wasn't really paying attention. I still let myself indulge in an episode here and there when I clean the house, but now I'm aware that music is a better choice if I really need to get things done.

4. I'm a better mom.

It's annoying when you're trying to focus on something and you keep getting interrupted. That was basically my entire life before I gave up podcasts. I'm so much more kind and patient with my kids when they aren't pulling me away from a podcast. It's a truth I've recognized but tried not to acknowledge for more than a year, and the reason is this: I get really bored playing with little kids, and podcasts give me a distraction. 

It's a gross thing to admit, but there it is: without podcasts, I'm more likely to actually be present when my kids need me. I don't spend that much time actively playing with my kids, so they deserve my attention when I do join them in creating a MagnaTile tower.

5. My podcast feed is more intentional.

Despite all the pros of not having podcasts around, I was more than a little excited to get back to my favorites after Easter. I took the opportunity to cull my feed and get rid of anything that was truly distracting or unhelpful in my life while seeking out new-to-me shows that are genuinely worth listening to. Here's what made the cut:

  • The Next Right Thing with Emily P. Freeman
  • The Simple Show with Tsh Oxenreider
  • The Nuanced Life with Sarah and Beth of Pantsuit Politics fame
  • Elise Gets Crafty with Elise Blaha Cripe
  • The Mom Hour with Meagan Francis and Sarah Powers
  • The Lazy Genius Podcast with Kendra Adachi

I don't have an addictive personality with things like alcohol or gambling, but give me chocolate, carbs, and podcasts and there's the very real possibility that I'll never stop. Giving up podcasts has made me more aware of how hooked I was and how to recognize the signs the next time I need another hiatus . . . before things get out of hand.

What role do podcasts play in your life? Have you ever felt like they're a gateway to consuming too much media?

March Book Report

March brought with it another round of colds for the whole family and way too many sleep deprived nights. The only upside was afternoons spent reading because it's the only thing I could muster up enough energy for! 

This month was heavier on nonfiction, both because of library holds coming in and because I know my time for concentrated reading is running short. I'm secretly looking forward to the excuse to read fluffier books once the new baby is here, but it's been good to knock a few more deep reads off my list first.

I'm focusing this year on reading with more intention and focus rather than gravitating toward what everyone else is reading. As always, you can check out my criteria for "deep reads" in this post, and you can catch up on past 2018 book reports here.

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Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath

 

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: Four stars

Decision-making has always been tricky for me. I'm very close to straddling the line between Judging and Perceiving on the MBTI (P wins out, but only barely). That means I like decisions made relatively quickly, and I hate the stress of drawing out a decision . . . but I also like to explore all my options to make sure I'm making the best decision, which takes time. Combine that with my strong Feeling type that bases decisions off emotions more than logic, and I'm basically a mess.

Decisive is the perfect resource for changing all that. The Heath brothers dig deep into the statistics and psychology of decision making for everyone from big-shot CEOs considering a corporate buyout to your average twenty-something wondering if she should break up with her boyfriend. They provide straightforward steps anyone can take to evaluate their decision and make the best choice possible.

My only problem (and the reason I docked a star) is that there are SO many steps to evaluate a decision from all angles. It's impractical that anyone would remember all of them, much less have time to apply them to every major decision they face. I wish this book had shared more practical tips for day-to-day decision making, those little things that aren't groundbreaking but that can add up to a big impact over time.

Bottom line: Worth a read for anyone interested in the topic. I guarantee you'll learn something, whether you make decisions logically or intuitively.

Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach

 

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: Five stars

I picked this one up at Half-Price Books after my podcast cohost Abbie gave it a rave review, and I'm so glad I did. Food narratives hold a special place in my heart, but their structure can vary quite a bit. Some lean more heavily toward being a traditional cookbook, while others are basically essays with a recipe tossed in every now and then for good measure. Rosenstrach strikes the perfect balance in Dinner: A Love Story, with a nearly 50/50 split between recipes and the stories of how they came to be.

The best part? These are the chronicles of a foodie and a mother, someone who's survived the unglamorous reality of trying to make a halfway decent dinner with a screaming baby on her hip and lived to see the other side. Her recipes are nothing if not family friendly. The vast majority are actually simple to cook, and my kids have willingly eaten all of the five or so recipes I've tried so far.

Bottom line: If you want to re-spark the joy of cooking and are living with tiny humans, this one is a must read.

Finish by Jon Acuff

 

Deep reading category: Teaches me something specific

Star rating: Four-and-a-half stars

This book has been on my library hold list since it first came on my radar a few months ago, but I wish I'd shelled out and bought it instead. Acuff is already famous for titles like Start, which gives readers the kick in the pants to get going on a project, but Finish is what many of us creatives really need. How often do you jump into a new idea before seeing the last one through? (This is me raising my hand over here.)

Acuff breaks down all the sneaky ways perfectionism stops us from finishing the projects that really matter and how we can push through to the end anyway. I've never thought I had a problem with perfectionism, but Finish was a real eye-opener to all the ways perfectionism can disguise itself behind fear, "responsible" decisions, and other excuses. This book was a quick (and hilarious!) read that's perfect for dipping into whenever you have a moment.

Bottom line: Highly recommended for anyone, creative or otherwise, who has trouble completing goals or projects. (For more on this topic, check out the Chasing Creative episode on getting unstuck at the beginning, middle, and end of a project.)

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

 

Deep reading category: Outstanding writing

Star rating: Three-and-a-half stars

The Hazel Wood is an un-put-downable YA novel that takes readers into fairytales dark enough to rival the original Grimm brothers themselves. I'm a sucker for both YA and any sort of fairytale spinoff, so this new release was a no-brainer for me. Plus that cover earns all the heart eyes! 

I was utterly taken in by the first half of the book, where we follow Alice Crewe, granddaughter of mysterious fairytale author Althea Prosperpine. Alice and her mother have never set down roots, always trying to escape the bad luck that seems to be chasing them. But things are taken to a whole new level when the mother-daughter duo receives word that the grandmother Alice has never known has died---and when creepy characters from Althea's stories start showing up in the real world.

The first half of the book reads like the best type of urban fantasy, but the second half takes readers into territory I wasn't crazy about. Let's just say there were some character choices that had my head spinning (nothing makes me crazier than character action that doesn't align with their previous behavior). Albert's writing style also devolved into purple metaphors that don't actually describe anything, probably in an effort to make the setting seem more atmospheric. This tactic didn't work for me in Caraval, and it didn't work for me here. 

Bottom line: This is a perfectly creepy Halloween read for fans of dark fairytales, but I feel like a lot of the book's potential was lost. The author is currently working on a sequel, but the jury's still out on whether I'll be continuing the series.

When Meal Planning Saves You

This post was originally written a year ago, back when I was super optimistic about how long it would take to launch this blog. The post just seemed like it was meant for spring, so I held onto it until now---once again, the week before Easter. Nearly a full year later, the meals in this book still never fail to perk up my meal planning and remind me why we prioritize gathering around the table. 

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I hate meal planning.

Oh, I love the idea of plotting each meal nicely in it's calendar square, guiding me away from last-minute takeout and the frustration of an empty pantry. I even love it in practice: meal planning undoubtedly saves us hundreds of dollars on groceries each year, not to mention the untold frustrations of dragging two small children to Target for that block of cheese I forgot (again).

What I hate is the activity of meal planning.

There is never an hour (or even ten minutes) in which I think, "I'd like to devote this portion of my life to figuring out what my family will eat for the next seven days." Never is there a convenient time for digging through the pantry, rearranging pasta boxes and canned goods to see if we're running low on olive oil. 

And after all that, having the prophetic-like vision to combine the existing pantry goods with not-yet-purchased ingredients and make them into nourishing, well-rounded meals? Meals that fit effortlessly with the weather, our social plans, and whatever other events make their way onto our calendar? Forget about it.

Meal planning is a chore on par with scrubbing the bathroom.

Until one Sunday night, it wasn't. 

We had all been crabby and tired this particular Sunday. The toddler had meltdowns all day long. The baby kept bursting into screaming fits for no apparent reason. I accidentally fell asleep on the floor for five minutes when I took a break from folding laundry.

It was a long day, one in which we all clearly needed to hit the reset button.

The last thing I wanted to do was meal plan, but I knew I had to. It was the week before Easter. Not only did I have to round up a week's worth of dinners (including one vegetarian for Good Friday), I had to make sure I had all the ingredients on hand for the dishes we would bring to our family's Easter celebration.

Meal planning usually leads me to Pinterest, but the holiday had me reaching for printed recipes. I dug to the back of the cupboard, past the cutting board and splatter screens and muffin tins, for the cheese slicer. This is where we keep the paperclipped scraps of copy paper and post-its with my grandma's scrawling handwriting detailing the makings of our traditional family Easter Pizza. (This is the only recipe for which we use the cheese slicer, so leaving the recipe there makes sense in my head.) 

I grabbed my latest Taste of Home magazine from the basket on the fireplace hearth, hopeful that it would tell me how to make green bean casserole. Next came the mother of all cookbooks: Better Homes and Gardens. Its red-checkered cover has graced my kitchen since the day I got married, when my other grandma presented it as a wedding gift. 

And then on a whim, I picked up Eat This Poem by Nicole Gulotta and added it to the top of my pile. With my whiteboard calendar on my right and my stack of recipes on my left, I prepared to tackle the drudgery of meal planning.

But the drudgery never came. 

As I read through my grandma's handwritten recipe notes, I realized that I was sitting in complete silence for the first time in days. It was a moment that begged to be noticed, so of course, I read a poem.

I knew I would love Eat This Poem because I love the idea of marrying poetry with food. The book is a blend of life's best things: well-loved recipes and mini essays and curated poems to pair with them. (And if that appeals to you, check out the blog of the same name. It's a delight.)

Author Nicole Gulotta is a kindred spirit when it comes to poetry and writing and appreciation of good food. But I don't always share her idea of what good food looks like. She eats a largely vegetarian diet, and ours is decidedly meat based. She loves a good balsamic vinaigrette on a salad; I love Hidden Valley Ranch.

Still, we agree on the important parts: The best food is whole food, made from scratch, shared with those you love. Family recipes are sacred. Eating seasonally makes your food taste better.

I flipped through the book, devouring poetry and short essays along with recipes (many of which I know I'll never make). Soon an hour had passed , yet nary a meal had been planned. And then, Italian Beef Stew. 

This was the recipe I'd been waiting to find, the one that would fill us up on a chilly, rainy Monday. 

I added the ingredients to my list. I pulled meat to thaw from the basement freezer. I added a flag to the book.

This was meal planning as it was meant to be, savored as slowly as the meal itself. I had found connection through the line-by-line instructions of a family recipe, paired with carefully chosen poems.

Perhaps this meal planning was a failure. After all, I spent nearly two hours planning one meal. But I think it was a gift and a blessing, one I will be sure to seek out again. 

Castles in the Air: Online Life vs. the Real World {Chasing Creative}

I feel like I live in two worlds sometimes, managing the parallel lives of two people whose realities are totally different. 

In one world, I'm subject to the whims of two tiny people with a never-ending string of needs. I sweep the floor three times a day and still have crumbs stuck to my socks, I don't go more than 15 minutes without answering the question "Why?" and I always seem to be feeding someone else and eating my own meals cold. 

In the other, I'm prepared and put together. I post well-crafted sentences and hold conversations with other adults, conversations I actually manage to contribute to in an intelligent way. I have a profile picture that always looks happy and has clean hair, even when the real-life me doesn't. This is a world of filters that act as rose-colored glasses. 

Take a guess which one is more tempting to spend time in. 

We're all drawn in by the lure of the online world with its promises of connections real people through social media, and building real influence by pouring into an audience, building a platform like a stage with steps as high as you can. 


Sometimes I picture it like the Castle in the Air from The Phantom Tollbooth. Milo, the boy hero of the story, has spent the whole book working to reach the Castle in the Air to rescue two sisters, Princess Rhyme and Princess Reason.

Just before reaching his destination, Milo is distracted by a whole host of monsters: a faceless gentleman who assigns Milo an endless string of pointless tasks that will take hundreds of years to complete, the Demon of Insincerity who proclaims himself to be much more than he is, the Gelatinous Giant who tells Milo that being different isn't safe. 

The monsters chase Milo to the stairs of the castle, where a Senses Taker again distracts Milo from his real goal by asking a series of increasingly trivial questions. Just steps away from the Castle in the Air, and Milo has forgotten all about the princesses and the demons. Only an explosion of unexpected laughter make him snap out of it.


The Phantom Tollbooth is an allegorical children's novel published in 1961. It's nearly 60 years old, but I don't think it's ever been more relevant than it is now. 

The real world, the one that's messy and filled with hard work, is so much less appealing than the promises of the online world. But the real world is where we live, with our children and spouses and friends and family. The real world is where the magic of creativity happens. It's where we're called to be: here. 

Portions of the online world are real, like the genuine friendships we can form and the words we can share that might otherwise stay hidden away in a notebook on our nightstand. But most of it? It's all smoke and mirrors, distractions and insincerity. 


But allegories can never reflect real life perfectly. Social media and platforms have their place, especially for creatives who want their work to mean something and impact others. 

So how do we balance it all without getting pulled away from our real goals? That's the question Abbie and I are tackling in this week's episode of Chasing Creative. Head here to give it a listen: Social Media and the Creative Life. 

We don't have all the answers (or any answers, really), but we do have the hope that Princesses Rhyme and Reason gave Milo: it's okay that the journey takes a little longer than it might have as long as we learn from our mistakes and carry the lessons with us always.

How do you balance creating and living in the real world with the expectation to build a platform online?

Life Lived in a Moleskine Notebook

"So it's a diary?"

My black Moleskine notebook is open on the kitchen table in front of me while my husband peers curiously down at it. The notebook follows me everywhere, though I rarely have time to open it. It sits on the corner of my desk while I write client articles, on the kitchen counter while I chop onions, on the nightstand next to my bed just in case I happen to wake up before the kids.

The notebook is everywhere. I'm more attached to it than my phone. It's the thing I'd grab first in a fire (assuming the kids were already safe). But I don't actually know what it is.

"Um, not really. It's just where I write down things that happen and what I think about them. But not like, everything that happens. Just important things that might matter someday. Things I might want to remember?"

I'm stumbling over my words, not making sense even to myself. I add something about creative nonfiction as a genre and how it holds the start to many of the essays I eventually publish online, but I can tell that only muddies the waters more. My husband shakes his head and gives me a small eye roll, figuring it's one of the many things that he, a non-reader, will never get about me, a person who lives and breathes words all day.

I press the tip of my pen back down on the paper, but whatever I was going to write is already lost. I stare at the black dot the pen left in the middle of the paper, letting my eyes unfocus, trying to chase back whatever fleeting idea has been flitting through my brain. 


I was ten when I first stumbled upon the Pensieve with Harry Potter. Dumbledore says something about how your mind becomes so full of thoughts, you just need somewhere to put them all. Later, you can find patterns you wouldn't have noticed otherwise. 

Harry nods along even though he doesn't get it. At ten, this is how I felt too. A bowl full of thoughts didn't make any sense to me. How could your mind not have space to think about the things that needed thinking about? My head was balancing all sorts of things that year, like whether or not I would like summer camp (I didn't), which teacher I'd get next year (a good one), and how awkward my first experience with health class would be (very).

Then Harry and I both grew up, and now a basin filled with swirling silver thoughts makes a lot more sense. 

In the six years since entering "real" adulthood, complete with marriage, home ownership, and children, I've often wished for a magical basin that could hang onto thoughts and memories until I had time and space to process them all. But J. K. Rowling's Pottermore site tells us that it's even more than that. 

She tells us that it's difficult to use a Pensieve to sort through ideas; it's not something every wizard can do. It requires work and skill, and if you're too protective of your secrets or ashamed of your past, you'll never manage it. 


My notebook is a Muggle's Pensieve, the closest I can get to using magic to sort the thoughts that need sorting. It gives the gift of mental processing and the ability to find threads of stories in an otherwise mundane daily life, though these findings don't come easily. 

I have to be willing to write down things I wish I hadn't said or done. I have to know that I could get hit by a bus someday and people could end up flipping through those pages full of unpolished words that weren't meant to be read. I have to know that all the things I write there might not add up to anything real in the end, but they were probably worth writing anyway.

And so the notebook that holds all these words I can't quite define stays with me. I carry it from room to room in our house, jotting down a quick thought in between refilling sippy cups and breaking up fights over toys.

Someday, if I'm lucky, maybe I'll find enough magic to sort through the thoughts and find the pattern that was there all along.

 

 

Planning an Ideal Creative Retreat {Chasing Creative}

Before we had kids, my husband and I would go up to his family's cabin in February or March for an ice fishing weekend. 

This meant using an outhouse and boiling snow for cooking water, huddling in a blanket and fuzzy socks next to the space heater, and carrying our things through what was often more than a foot of snow up an unplowed, hilly driveway.

It was glorious. Because ice fishing weekend meant my husband would ice fish while I sat in the cabin in blessed, glorious, non-wifi-connected silence. 

I typically got a lot of writing done, not to mention plenty of reading. Though I never called it this at the time, I realized that those weekends were my version of a creative retreat.

 

Spending a full weekend on creative work feels nearly impossible nowadays, and I know I'm not alone in that. We've got little kids or full-time jobs or financial limitations or all of the above. It's hard to justify time spent on purely creative things when you've got a million other responsibilities on your plate. But I still think taking a creative retreat is important.

No one else is ever going to prioritize your creativity for you.

A creative retreat is not only your chance to spend time recharging and doing something you enjoy, it's also your chance to tell the world, "Hey, this is important to me. This thing I do just because I love it is worth it, and I'm going to start treating it that way."

Creative retreats don't have to be some big mountaintop experience (though wouldn't we all love if they were?). A creative retreat could be

  • spending two days in a row at the library with your notebook and a pen
  • an afternoon at your favorite park with a sketchbook
  • a calligraphy workshop you've always wanted to take
  • letting your spouse get up with the kids so you can spend the morning in bed teasing out an essay idea or doodling in your journal

Creative retreats are accessible to you if you keep an open mind about what that looks like. Listen in to this week's Chasing Creative episode for ideas on planning a practical creative retreat that fits your lifestyle. You also won't want to miss our season one episode when we interviewed Jennie Moraitis on taking a mini creative retreat.

What would your ideal creative retreat look like?

 

Creative Communities {Chasing Creative}

Most creatives wander around their real lives feeling like no one really gets them. Oftentimes this suits us (at least those of us who are introverted). Then we come online and find that camaraderie is just on the other side of the screen, where we can join the vast circle of other creatives who understand and support our work.

Having people who can mentor and encourage us is essential to our creative lives. But how do we find these people? Is it healthy to live this double life where many of the people who know us best live on the other side of a screen? What sorts of creative groups and mentorships are best, and is there ever a point where they do more harm than good? And of course, the question every introvert dreads: How can I find a creative community in real life?

Abbie and I are hashing through all these questions, plus sharing our own experiences with creative communities, in this week's episode of the Chasing Creative podcast. Head here to listen, or download it wherever you find your podcasts!

Lessons from the Bread

There is a spectacular science to baking bread. The basic formula is simple: flour + water + yeast + sugar = bread. It's the basis for everything from crusty ciabatta to soft sandwich bread, dimpled focaccia filled with herbs and butter to quick-rising hamburger buns. Somehow, miraculously, those four ingredients produce breads so different, you'd never know they were all cousins at heart.

In four years of baking our weekly sandwich loaf, and just about every other type of carb-y dough known to man, I've never bothered to acquaint myself with the mystery of the process. I'd find a recipe and follow it. I wouldn't tweak. I wouldn't wonder about how these ingredients came together to make that result.

  Photo by  Nikki Tran

Photo by Nikki Tran

I used to try harder, in the early days. Jacob and I had freshly returned from a trip to Europe, and our tastebuds were less than thrilled at coming home to American fare after being delighted by Italian olive oil and Austrian dumplings for three weeks. Bread and cheese seemed particularly lacking, like eating a cardboard-flavored sponge or chewing a slice of rubber that was a closer relative to plastic than to anything produced by a cow.

Making my own cheese seemed a bit out of reach for someone who had only recently stopped serving Hamburger Helper for every other meal, so I settled on bread. 

One week later, I was watching the UPS deliveryman drag 40 pounds of wheat berries up the steep cement stairs that curve toward our house (a trip he's made every few months since then). I tied a blue flowered apron around my neck, my newly pregnant belly not even making a bump in the fabric, and I poured a measuring cup filled with light brown, oblong wheat berries into the top of my new electric flour mill. 

The recipe I consulted was written for white flour, and I succeeded in making a dense brick that refused to rise. I baked it still sitting a quarter inch below the top of the loaf pan and ate every crumbly, bitter slice myself as peanut butter toast. I was proud of every crumb. 

I spent the next six months experimenting. I found a recipe made for wheat flour, and I hunted down additives like vital wheat gluten and citric acid (difficult to find because, the Whole Foods store clerk said, Dr. Oz had just advised women to put it on their face). I kneaded my dough by hand rather than in the mixer because I liked the feel of it, even though it made my hands ache. I jotted notes on scraps of paper until the recipe I had copied from Pinterest was so crinkled and scratched out, it was impossible for anyone but me to read. 

The bread got better but never great. And then I had the baby. 

Hadley cried anytime I set her down for the first four months of her life. She hated her baby swing, her car seat, her stroller, her bouncer, and at times, even the baby wrap I tucked her into. 

Baking bread turned into the worst chore of the week. With my newborn's screams in the background of every loaf I made, I started taking shortcuts. I tossed yeast into water without waiting for it to sponge, and I cut the kneading time in half (how much could it really matter, anyway?). I skipped the shaping and instead plopped the lump of dough unceremoniously into the loaf pan, then stuck the whole thing into a 170-degree oven in the hopes the warmth would make it rise faster. 

I wanted better payoff with less work. I lost sight of the process, and I didn't get it back for years. 

The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum

The Italians don't have better bread than we do because they rush through a set of instructions. They take their time. They find the best ingredients. They press their hands into the dough and respond to what it needs.

This is what I'm remembering this winter, largely with the help of The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Beranbaum. It was in this book I learned that my shortcuts were literally killing my bread. The very things that keep yeast happy and growing can also kill it dead in one fell swoop. 

Yeast needs warm water to activate, but not too hot. Yeast needs sugar to eat, but don't let it touch honey directly. The same goes for salt, which adds to the bread's flavor but has the potential do harm if you're not careful. And don't let the dough rise somewhere too hot! Warmth is good, but nothing more than what the glow of the oven light provides.

I read all this and immediately started applying it to myself instead of the bread, like the good English major I am. 

I am the yeast. I've been trying to give myself the ingredients necessary for an intentional life, but I take shortcuts in the process. I do more harm than good. My ambition is killing my creativity, not feeding it. Social media is causing me to burn out, not to rise in the warmth. I need more time to rise, more opportunities to be carefully shaped into what I'm meant to be.

In just six weeks of owning this book, I've gone from flinging together a haphazard dough in ten minutes to committing to a bread-baking process that begins at 10:00 a.m. and wraps up around 8:00 p.m. It includes making a sponge to get things started, kneading the dough in the KitchenAid for seven minutes at least, and giving the yeast time to work through three full rises plus a rest period. 

It's more work than it's ever been before, and yet, it no longer feels like a chore. Checking the dough is a restful reminder to be present to what's happening in my own home. Moving it from step to step is practical art in the middle of a long day. 

And, of course, the bread tastes better now than it ever has before.

Here's to hoping the lesson holds true for the rest of life as well.