Charmed

October 25, 2012

The bracelet was perfect. After searching from Paris to Alsace to Tuscany, I finally found the jewelry that expressed one of the most important summers of my life.

You see I am not a collector, really. My best friend is the one who collects things. As a teen she collected crystals. Later she took a liking to charms. So whenever I would travel, I would bring her a charm from the places I had been: the Parthenon in Greece; the Eiffel Tower in Paris; the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Until one day her bracelet grew so heavy, her arm could no longer support it.

Infused with the need to find something similar, I looked everywhere for a new charm bracelet, but it seems as though the charm makers had gone out of business. No matter where I went, I couldn’t find any.

That is, until I reached our final destination on our week-long tour of Tuscany in a small town called Lucca. There lay two charm bracelets in the window with exactly the charms I had been searching for. The place was so tiny we had to stand still so as not to touch the walls. With an open face and a kind smile, the shop clerk was incredibly friendly. In our broken Italian we asked for a good place to eat. She called around to her friends, but none of the good places were open. She was the most, well, charming person we had met along the way!

Sometimes we find what we are looking for in the most unexpected places. If we search too hard, we may not see what we need to see. With relaxed eyes and a calm spirit, we are better able to perceive what we are meant to see.

In which ways have you been charmed lately? Life can be spell-bounding, if you let it. Open your heart and look at the world through its eyes. You may find that everything you’ve been looking for is right in front of you.

The Clearing

June 11, 2012

It all started with the blue dress. My daughter and her best friend begged me to take them shopping so, never being one to say no to some leisure, I carted them to the mall in Ingolstadt. Pressing some cash into her palm, I told Daughter to use it wisely. She winked. I wasn’t sure whether to be worried or laugh. I chose the latter.

With time on my hands, I browsed various shops, read a book, then got pulled into a store as if by magic.

As with many things in my life, the blue dress called out to me.

“You must take me home with you.” I drew nearer. Was it really talking to me? Now I know textiles don’t talk, but this one was definitely saying something. I found it hard not to listen.

“But I don’t need you,” I whispered into the clothing rack. A few eyes around the store fell upon me. I tried to ignore them.

“Trust me,” the dress whispered back. “Yes, you do.”

I tried it on to be sure I wasn’t losing my mind. It gave me a hug. I could feel it. So I pulled out the cash and bought it. Full retail price.

When I got home, I took one look at my closet and realized I couldn’t possibly hang this beautiful thing next to so many drabby clothes that smacked of compromise, reason and bargain-hunting.

I started pulling out all kinds of clothing that I really couldn’t stand. Dresses my dear, fashionable sister handed down to me that never really quite fit, clothing I bought on an impulse because I thought it made sense at the time, handbags with stained interiors, and one thigh-high stocking whose pair must have gotten lost in the shuffle at some point. A question formulated in my mind.

“Do I love it?” If the answer wasn’t yes, I dumped it.

Not everything I tossed was old or thread-bare: a sweater I only wore once, a scarf someone well-meaning had given me, an old jacket I donned a dozen times. Other items I kept: a cocktail dress I wore to George H. W. Bush’s Inaugral ball (which, by some miracle, still fits), the dress I wore to the theater the night Princess Diana died, a twenty-four year old Victoria’s secret night gown that has seen more tears than I can tell you.

If clothing makes the woman, then I have set myself free.

The message was obvious. We all need to engage in space clearing in our lives. Whether they are physical things, bad relationships or harmful habits, each of us can start anew by making room for new possibilities. Sometimes all it takes is a moment to listen.

Thank you, blue dress. You were right. I needed you more than I realized.

**Editor’s Note: Not sure how to space clear? This post will tell you.

Happy Earth Day!

Did you know you are what you wear? When it comes to eco-friendly fashion, it’s true!

Wearing an organic t-shirt makes me feel, I don’t know, more noble. It’s a different kind of fashion statement to care about how your clothes got made – and by whom. With reports about child labor and terrible working conditions in Third World textile factories, fashion becomes political. But it’s more than just about how you look, but also about how you feel and what impact you have made on donning garb made by undernourished people stifled in heat-filled rooms with air stuffed with fabric particles.

Slow Fashion, otherwise known as eco-fashion, made a nice showing at the Eco Fashion Week in Vancouver April 10-12. So it only seemed appropriate to chat with an up and coming fashionista herself, Jaimie Hilfiger, about where fashion is headed. Curious about her perspective as the 24-year-old niece of Tommy Hilfiger, I plied her with questions about eco-friendly fashion. What I discovered was astounding.

Photo Courtesy of Chiaroscuro Fotografia

Did you know there was such a thing as the Green Carpet Challenge, spearheaded by Collin Firth’s wife, Livia? At Red Carpet events such as the Oscars, Livia Firth suggests that people show off their eco-friendly apparel. Now how come I never heard about that before? As folks fawn over the latest designer, why were TV hosts mum about an amazing trend coming straight from Hollywood? Did you know, for instance, that Meryl Streep wore a gown to the Academy Awards that was made out of reusable materials? And we’re not talking iron for the lady. It’s an impressive trend few people seem to be talking about.  The effort has a Facebook page with a paltry 200+ fans. So please go there (after reading this post) and ‘like’ it. This campaign deserves more attention.

Jaimie mentioned her admiration for Stella McCarthy who refuses to use any leather or animal fur, for instance. Many of you may know Pamela Anderson would rather go naked than wear such things (well, sometimes one might think she’d just rather be naked anyway). As an environmentalists and thoughtful designer, Stella McCarthy has brought out lines with natural and renewable materials that have caught the eye of Madonna, Gywneth and Kate (Winslet). Shoes without leather? Think straw and cloth.

Another cool brand that Jaimie mentioned is the Urban Renewal Brand, an affordable line found in Urban Outfitters stores. She is also coming out with her own line of high-end leisurewear, so-called transitional clothing between work and bedtime.

“It’s torture that at present we women only have a choice between skinny jeans and those reindeer-printed PJs bottoms,” I commented, then breathed a sigh of relief into the phone when she revealed her plans to make comfortwear fashionable.

We talked some about beauty products and the importance of avoiding all petroleum ingredients. Not only is it bad for the Earth, but it’s murder on your pores too. I was impressed with Jaimie’s direction and commitment. In true power of slow style, she feels a sense of purpose to change the world as a role model in the area of eco-friendly living.

“It is our responsibility to take care of the Earth,” she told me.

Slow Fashion is not just the latest trend. It’s a sustainable one. So take that shoe and wear it. Tread lightly on the Earth and remember: if you feel good in what you’re wearing that also makes the Earth feel good, it’ll show.

Imagine taking an entire day off. No cell phone. No one calling your name. No computer. No client calls. No children begging for ice cream. Just you, yourself, and, well, YOU!

Yesterday I declared a sabbatical from my every day life and headed for the hills. Well, not really. I first headed for the woods. In fact, I left my iPhone, with little battery power left, behind. After an hour power walk, I went to the gym to enjoy the sauna and a hot, albeit short, shower. Browsing the supermarket aisles for a snack, I took my time with no real purpose or timeline. I even waited patiently in line while two women and a two-year-old unloaded their heavy shopping cart onto the conveyor belt. I had two items, but didn’t mind just standing there soaking in my surroundings. What an fabulous feeling not to try to squeeze time like an orange!

I missed the train to Munich so had to wait 30 minutes for the next one. So what. I called my husband with 30% left on my iPhone battery to say I’d be home in the evening or later, in case I found a movie I liked.

When I finally got to my destination, thousands of people rushed to and fro. Seeking refuge (and warmth) in a bookstore, I sat amongst the others on a long bench made for book lovers who just want to focus on one thing: the book or magazine they were reading. I found a book on burnout, which felt purposeful enough as I am doing research for a new book on it myself.

It was there that I realized how tiring a purpose-driven life can be. When we do everything on purpose, with focus and intention, we have no real time for Bacchalian enjoyment. To do a thing simply because we want to resides outside the realm of our vocabulary. In our achievement-oriented society, having a ‘be’ day seems extravagent indeed.

But it was just the thing I needed after a string of successive achievements. When we keep our eyes on accomplishment only,  we have no time to recuperate. With all our time spent on going for the gold, we find our worth only in the doingness of things instead of realizing just being is more than enough.

Did you know you will continue to exist — that is, to be — even when you don’t ‘do’?

Where did our drive for constant activity come from? According to the book I just read, Warum Burnout Nicht Vom Job Kommt by Helen Heinemann (in nearly one sitting – it was that good), burnout comes from the blurring of the lines around our specific roles in public and private life. If we live with uncertainty as to where my role begins and, say, my partner’s ends, we are left with a domain over which we will combat. Combine the lack of clarity with a lack of pause to reconsider which direction each of us should go and a wildfire ensues. Each of us, running as fast as we can, toward an ill-defined end goal can lead to burnout faster than you can say, “Call 911!”

Slowing down and taking pause really do help because in those pockets of air we allow ourselves come the solutions to many of our issues we otherwise quickly try to sweep under the carpet.

Take the Slow Challenge and call a whole day off for yourself. What do you think you’ll discover?

Tis the season to be…maced? The latest Walmart pepper spray incident has left a lot of people perplexed. Had the mace-toting gal had a little more slow, she might have gotten out of Walmart without a police escort. This Wednesday Wait a Minute examines how to deal when the Christmas lights are tangled and your nerves are all a’jangled!

My husband’s cooking is legendary. So whenever I get the chance to try out a new cookbook, I know he’ll start to pour over it before I can even crack the cover.

Last night he topped himself with a Chicken in Thai Green Curry that nearly made me weep. It was that good. Thanks to Wandee Young and Byron Ayanoglu’s Simply Thai Cooking cookbook, I will be able to repeat my husband’s laudable culinary finesse. Although I have a hard time following directions, this cookbook is so easy even I can do it!

If you’re looking for a different kind of Thanksgiving feast this week, consider delving into Moroccan cooking with Pat Crocker’s 150 Best Tagine Recipes. The cover alone will make your mouth water, not to mention the spice descriptions and helpful photos.

Take your Thanksgiving to the next level with one or two ‘exotic’ nontraditional dishes. Remember: diversity is the spice of life. If spice is what you need, you’ll get it with these two cookbooks!

What’s your favorite Thanksgiving dish?

The New York Times recently reported on an interesting concept called ‘shadow work’, the unpaid duties we fulfill every day. Going beyond the obvious (such as child care and household chores), the article’s author, Craig Lambert pointed to the real reason we’re all so exhausted. We complete more tasks today than ever before.

And I’m not just talking about email or iPhone usage, but also about mundane things such as the self-check out function at most any grocery store.

At the risk of sounding nostaglic (and, tangently, pathetic), I would like to reminisce for just one moment. It used to be you had a bag boy who would roll your groceries out to the car for you. No more. You may have a bag boy (or girl) in the US, but those things never really existed in Germany, where I live. In fact, in addition to bagging the groceries yourself, here you have to even coin-operate the shopping cart, resulting in your having to push the thing back into its slot to retrieve the coin you put into it. It prevents car dings. It preserves order. And it’s an athletic event every time I food shop.

Now there’s something lovely and slow about bringing your own bag. Really, there is. But let’s look at a few other examples, such as the gas station. As Craig suggests, gas stations used to be called service stations because you had, well, service. The guy in the red jumpsuit and clipboard would ask what kind of gas you wanted, pumped it, then managed the payment. Now you can swipe, pump and drive without talking to a soul.

It feels lifeless. And robotic. And 1984-ish. Only it’s 2011.

If we opt to stand in the check out line (in Germany, you have no choice but to do that, besides at IKEA, which has its own brand of do-it-yourself flair), we are often tempted to check our smartphones while waiting to see what in the world we missed in the 18 minutes we food-shopped. I do it. I know some of you do it too.

By day’s end, it’s no wonder we’re so exhausted. All that DIYing can put a strain on one’s sensibilities. We all need each other and helping others is a great way to connect and feel part of something greater than ourselves. So the next time you’re tempted to push the 15 items or less limit to check out faster, seek human connection instead. Smile. And the cashier might just smile back. The machine won’t. Guaranteed.

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For those of you who have followed this blog for a while, you may recall my post on Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a book that recounts the author’s year-long foray into the Slow Food movement with helpful recipes and daunting tales of raising heritage turkeys, making her own pasta and eating only food born, raised and slaughtered within a 50-mile radius of her house.

It promptly made me want to plant my own veggies, raise my own chickens and never, ever buy another loaf of bread again.

I lasted about a week, then reverted to most of my former buying habits: organic, store-bought with an occasional jaunt to the farmer’s market if I happened to be in the area.

Feeling like a complete failure, I was certain I could never measure up to the Kingsolver clan and was about to abandon all hope of ever feeding my children something that didn’t come from a box when Jennifer Reese came along.

Jennifer is my culinary hero.

Her cookbook, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, made me laugh so hard I nearly fell out of bed the first night I picked it up.  A cookbook that is funny? Let’s just say Jennifer is Barbara Kingsolver meets Erma Bombeck. She is seriously funny. Or funnily serious about food and what you can do to make your lives a little easier…and tastier!

For a delicious week, I savored every page as she unhooked me from my own First World guilt about Industrial Food and the harmful things we’re doing to the planet.

The book arose out of Jennifer’s own desperation. A victim of the 2008 recession, she suddenly found herself a formerly employed book critic for Entertainment Weekly. Watching the apple tree cast off its final fruit onto her Northern California lawn, Jennifer wondered if making apple sauce and living off the suburban land could save her. She set out to experiment with homemade food, starting her own silent from-scratch revolution.

But she is no proselytizer like some of her foodie contemporaries. Her side-splitting humor and distinct honesty about what is easier to make and what is easier to buy is extremely empowering and liberating.  For Jennifer, food is not political. Food is food.

Her expression about buying ducks, then selling them because of their gang-ish, bullying treatment of the other suburban-yard foul, reveals a truly authentic voice. Just listen to her description of the turkey farm where she bought what she called a Frankenbird with a bad boob job whom she didn’t have the heart to kill for her Thanksgiving meal:

“[The] farm was strewn with rusted car parts, overturned boxes of trash, empty,2-liter soda bottles, crushed cans, and downed trees, and through this WALL-E wasteland wandered dozens of chickens, cats, dogs, and three bloated, broad-breasted white turkeys – the standard factory-breed…the turkey may well have ingested STP,  Mountain Dew, and crystal meth, but I remained confident that she was never polluted by an antibiotic. We loved her instantly…”

She tried it. It failed. Onward!

Unlike Martha Stewart’s exotic list of ingredients for virtually every recipe she provides, Jennifer’s book is chock full of easy-to-make items whose components are in everyone’s kitchen. Flour, eggs, milk, salt, sugar. She brings food back to the basics. I will say, however, that some of the appliances may not be of your average variety. I, for one, don’t have, or plan on having, an ice cream maker. I did go out and buy a food processor/blender hybrid for the Nutella recipe. Yes! You can make Nutella from scratch. I still have to refine the amount of cocoa my kids can handle, but my daughter, the Nutella connoisseur, highly approved of the healthier version. No transfats. No aromas. Just plain and simple ingredients that came from the Earth.

Make the Bread, Buy the Butter is a doable look at how we can embrace slow food with humor, grace and a pinch of kosher salt. I bet even Barbara Kingsolver would approve.

It's the picture of Italian ice-cream in a sho...

Image via Wikipedia

Delays on the autobahn. Missed appointments. A jumble of commitments. Wash unhung.

It’s been a week of flurried activity that, despite my very best intentions, has been a little off. Blame it on the sweltering heat. Call it Mercury sliding into retrograde. Name it what you will. I’ve been late, truant and mismanaged since Monday.

Yesterday I was held up by a traffic accident that happened right before I arrived on the scene. Had I left in my normal early way, I may have been involved. I thanked the traffic gods and explained to the film director’s assistant as best I could when I finally arrived on set. Late is late and a frown ensues. Better that than flipped upside down on the A9.

Then today, my twelve-year-old daughter sunk into the floor with embarrassment as I bumbled about the orthodontist’s office. I had noted down the wrong time on my calendar, but the receptionist smiled and said, “We have an opening at 4 p.m.”

What’s a chronically late mother and her mortified daughter to do but…go shopping!?

So we flounced out the door for ninety minutes of spending. It ended up being the most perfect moment of slow I’d had with my kid all week.

There was no cell phone reception inside the department store (air-conditioned!) so I giggled with my daughter as she tried on various outfits. I even bought a few items myself. Then we treated ourselves to Italian ice cream.

“I forgive you,” my daughter whispered as she licked her ice cream.

“Excuse me?” I stopped in mid-bite.

“Being late has its advantages!” she grinned. And she was right.

We strap our mobile calendars to our palms and think the world will end if things go differently than planned. But sometimes it ends up being the best thing. Like not landing in a forty-car pile up and knowing that everything happens for a reason. Or that Italian ice cream and a bonding moment with your kid can happen when you take things a little easier every now and then. It is a moment such as the one we had today that I am reminded how the power of slow was born in an ice cream parlour. How à propos!

What’s been your favorite power of slow moment this summer?

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Browsing the thickly laden shelves of a Northampton bookstore, I sucked in the aroma of freshly printed works by people who could be my friends. My pal Lara had shared one of her favorites with me the day before at her Lincoln, MA home. It was there that I recalled the treasured moments of sitting in the sun, reading, uninterrupted and carefree. Other than vacation, I rarely read a book just because. And I remembered how good it felt.

“There it is!” I nearly shouted, drawing my voice to a theaterical whisper. It was the same book my friend had loaned me for the day. I promptly bought it, then devoured its pages, morsel by morsel.

Barbara Kingsolver, best known for her novels, penned a book entitled Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life in which she and her family took on a year-long experiment to eat only locally produced food products. Other than olive oil and a few select items, they lived off the land…and long enough to tell us about it.

I’m only part way through (life and its pressing demands have since taken over), but I wanted to share the importance of the Earth, its soil and the oil we use unwittingly, nay passively, when consuming goods grown halfway around the globe.

Barbara goes into a lot of detail in the beginning, capturing the reader’s interest with statistics and sustaining it with sultry writing. I can read anything, if written well.

Barbara’s is one for the bookshelves in my own home. It shares recipes anyone can try out (even for a disabled cook as myself!) as well as the trials and tribulations of an Appalachian family that embraced Slow food, one root, fruit and lettuce leaf at a time. I highly recommend it!

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