Monday, November 21, 2016

An Exercise in Contemplation

I'm an avid reader, and Goodreads is my favorite app for exploring new books and authors. I also tend to be quite a slow and careful reader (I make it through maaaaybe a book or two a month on average), so I am usually highly selective about my books, and I have no problem abandoning a book before I finish it if it hasn't captured me. Who has time for that?! Not me, Ms. Slowy McSlowReader!

My selective book vetting doesn't necessarily mean I have a discerning taste in books -- it just means that I like what I like. Sure, I read my (small) share of "high-brow" books, and my reading materials span a diverse range of genres, but darn it all if I get a hankering for some cheesy chick lit or low-common-denominator popular fiction, then I'll go ahead choose that sillier selection, and I'll do so without any hesitation or guilt.

One of the reasons I enjoy Goodreads is because of the reader reviews, and I often rely on those reviews as I vet my next book choice. While I've read many reviews, I've never written one of my own. Because the truth is, not only am I a slow reader, I'm a slow, ploddy writer too. Therefore, I just haven't wanted to mess with the time, energy and brain power it takes to crank out a decent book review. Plus, I generally don't want to risk sounding like an inarticulate, shallow-headed moron. Silly fears, perhaps -- especially since I never much care if I sound like an idiot here on the blog -- but real fears all the same.

All that said, I recently read an article that talked about the importance of contemplation as a means to fuel productivity and happiness.  One quote that stood out from the article is "The most productive and successful people tend to find ways to force themselves to think more deeply." Reading that article was a little bit of a wake-up call for me. Was I missing a greater sense of fulfillment by failing to take the time to reflect after finishing a book?

It didn't take long for me to answer that question with a big fat YES, yes I WAS missing out. Because, truth be told, lately I've been feeling quite a vacancy in the "fulfillment" and "meaning" buckets of my life (what else is new...oy). So, if taking a little reflection time to write a book review might help me to capture a tiny taste of contentment, no matter how fleeting, I decided it was worth the time and the risk of sounding like a simpleton.

Since reading that article, I've written not one, but TWO Goodreads reviews. I painfully (and embarrassingly) overthought my first rambling, lengthy review - especially considering it was a somewhat fluffy memoir about weight loss. The writing of my second review came much more freely and easily -- a brief reflection on a piece of historical fiction. Neither review is particularly deep or scholarly, however, if you are interested in reading them, you can check them out here and here.

Ultimately, the resulting end product of the written reviews isn't really the point at all. The point is, simply by partaking in the exercise of focused reflection and writing, I did somehow feel more connected, engaged and in-tune with myself and with world-at-large, if only for a limited time.

Of course, a contemplative practice need not be solely for the sake of crafting a book reviews. My writing here, after all, is one big deep think practice at purposefully digging beneath the surface, to work out my shiznit, and explore new angles and perspectives.  And given my continued struggle with finding and maintaining any sense of productive focus and sustained feelings of happiness, maybe it would be good for me to start challenging myself to do this contemplative writing thing with a little more discipline and frequency.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Friluftsliv...that "Free Air Life"

Norwegians embrace something called Friluftsliv (pronounced free -loofts-liv) which to the best of my understanding, means to be fully uplifted and enchanted by nature. The literal English translation of Friluftsliv is "free air life," but there is no single word in English to fully capture its essence and authentic meaning.

Friluftsliv seems to be considered a code of life and a way of being in Norway, and according to this article, this in-depth appreciation for and exploration of the world outdoors is even taught in "folk" high schools (though I'm not sure exactly what a "folk" high school is all about).

Last Sunday was an absolutely beautiful fall day here in Minne, with the colors peaking and the air still warm and inviting. I am the first to admit that I'm not the most at home in the great outdoors. Friluftsliv is not instinctual for me. I'm not one for bugs and dirt, and I have turned down invites to camp without a worry for what I might miss as I opted to stay at home with wine in hand while streaming Netflix. But I could not pass up a day outdoors last Sunday, breathing in fall with all of my senses, without a concern for clock time or my incomplete checklists of tasks and to dos. Time well spent need not be monitored.

So, I laced up my running shoes run the 10-mile path around the Chain of Lakes (#56 on my 2016 List), to capture some of the spirit of Minnesota Fall as best as my iPhone camera lens would allow, to let myself be completely captivated, curious, inspired and swept up by nature.

I took over 100 photos...and here are just a few of my favorites. An ode to Autumn. An attempt to walk the path of Friluftsliv, if only for a taste.

On the way to Lake Harriet near Dupont 

 A fenceline on the way to Lake Harriet

 The last stretch before the Lake Harriet ped and bike path

Lake Harriet, with some of the MPLS skyline peaking through

Lake Harriet

Lake Calhoun pedestrian path

An Isle in the Lake of the Isles

Colorful branches shade the Lake of the Isles

 Lake of the Isles lilypads 

Lake Calhoun

More fall foliage along Lake Harriet

   Lake Harriet ped and bike paths

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The American Dream

For those who know me personally, you may know that earlier this year, B and I bought a house. I am immensely proud of this, an "American Dream" type of milestone that, for a while, I thought I could never reach. As a long-time, self-proclaimed homebody, home ownership is the single element of the American dream that I have most wanted to make a part of my reality.

A decade ago I was living in expensive Chicago and trying to enjoy my young, urban life, doing my best to decompress from 60+ hour work weeks, while trying (and failing) to keep my head above the waves of my personal debt, waves that had been ripping and swelling since I turned 18.

Although I had a job and a career that paid decently, I was always playing 'catch up' with my credit card bills, car payment, cell phone and utility bills, and chipping away that effing expensive student loan, the loan that made for damn certain I would start my adult life in 5 figure debt. My credit rating was pretty deplorable, like a D grade or something, and I think the only reason it wasn't totally flushed down the toilet was because I paid that damn student loan on time each and every month, the only bill I managed to never pay late thanks to auto pay, my only financial saving grace.

At this time in my life, several of my friends were starting that very grownup journey of buying their first homes, either with their life partner or completely on their own. Given my frustrating financial situation, I resigned myself to the looming reality that homeownership was likely never going to be in the cards for me, not with my ocean of debt and my difficulty reigning it in. I was envious of my monetarily stable friends, and shameful of my financial failures.

Still, I never threw in the towel on eventually getting my financial game on track. I finally got fed up enough with juggling my debt, so I read some books on personal finance, and I set up a strict monthly budget and excel spreadsheet to track my expenditures (it's actually the same spreadsheet that I still use today -- I tried, but I am better with a more 'old school', self tracking approach). I scaled back on 'extras' and immediate gratification purchases, putting that saved money toward paying off each of my debts, one at a time (Thank you, Dave Ramsey and the Debt Snowball Method!). I started setting aside the tiniest amount of savings each month. Getting out of the red and into the black was my laser focus, and would be for the next few years. It sounds a lot easier than it actually was.

And then finally, a few years later, homeownership started to seem like not such an 'out of reach' idea after all. I had practically eliminated my credit card debt and car payment. I was still on track with that student loan (that I finally paid off not too long ago), and I even had some legit savings.

I'm proud that I cleared my personal debt, born from a combination of my young, stupid mistakes and sheer, unavoidable necessity. It took sacrifice, it took planning, it took hard work and sticking to my demanding (but ultimately well-paying) career path, and it took time (years!), but I persevered. I can't imagine if I'd be able to do it if I were graduating from college today, with the ever inflating cost of education, or if I had chosen a different, if not more noble career path, like public service or the arts. But, that's a completely separate topic, and one where I have MANY strong opinions.

Fast forward to today, and my financial life (and pretty much my whole life) is a different story. Now living in Minne, I'd describe my living situation as 'urban light' and the cost of living is much more sustainable than Chicago (but it's still a bigger city...). My survival budgeting and money saving practices born in Chicago days have become long-term, indestructible habits. B and I were able to pay up front and out of pocket for our very classy (IMO) wedding soiree in 2014, and last year I was even able to take a small break from the necessity of the 'corporate hustle' to re-evaluate my interests and goals (and perhaps surprisingly, it turns out I actually like a lot of aspects of the 'corporate hustle' and it's nice to discover that on my terms versus financial necessity). All the while, I saved funds to pool with Bs to put toward a down payment on the house we purchased together earlier this year.

My home. My little piece of the American Dream, one that I am so thankful to have, and that I will not take for granted.

Welcome to our house!

Closing day (2 days after my 36th! birthday!)

And...I even planted that little potted herb garden that I wanted so much. Next year we're expanding our 'farming' to include tomatoes and other veggies.

"Herbalicious!" Nothing smokable here, just basil, mint, rosemary & parsley.

And, don't get me started on the laundry list of cool house projects (mostly outdoor given the warmer months) that B has taken on! Turns out my husband is a pretty handy fellow, lucky (braggy) me!

Our outdoor movie projection screen. It's going to get a big work out this football season!

Our new firepit, designed and installed by B. S'mores, anyone?

B's first major project as a homeowner - staining the deck, matey's!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Hefty Pour

I love to learn about wine. In fact, 6 of my items from this year's edition of "The List" are wine related. Now, here we are, two-thirds of the way through the year, and I can finally check off one of these wine related items, which is to visit a winery I've never been to before. In fact, I can check it off twice!

Over the past few weeks, I've had the pleasure of visiting two wineries I have never before visited, including Fenn Valley Vineyard in SouthWest Michigan (not far from where I grew up), and Loma Prieta Winery, located in Los Gatos, CA (less than an hour from the Santa Cruz coastline). Here's a little taste of my two very different (but both enjoyable!) experiences.

Fenn Valley Vineyards

At the beginning of August, B and I took our annual excursion to visit our families in Michigan. My family lives in SW Michigan, and my sister and brother-in-law were visiting from TX at the same time, so it was also a little bit of a family reunion of sorts.

Because B doesn't get loads of time off, we built in a little quality vacation time for just the two of us in the midst of the swirl of family. To accomplish that mission, we rented an AirBNB overnight on a sailboat at the Yacht Club and Marina in Saugatuck. Saugatuck is a charming little Lake Michigan Coast town, with plenty of cute shops and restaurants, and of course, the Lake.  I can't say that we'll ever take up residence packed tightly in a tiny v-birth sailboat for a night again in the future, but we LOVED drinking bubbly on the bow, watching the sunset across Lake Michigan, and soaking up a wholly new-to-us experience.

Fenn Valley Vineyards is just a short jaunt from charming little Saugatuck, tucked away in the Lake Michigan countryside, and we decided to check it out before reconnecting with my mom and step-Dad back "inland." With the slogan "The Lake Effect Everyone Loves," Fenn Valley has been a premier coastal MI wine producer for more than 4 decades.  Along with a variety of reds and whites, they also produce the famous "Michigan Cherry Wine" and even boast a few sparklers, which is a favorite style of mine (and probably a favorite style of ALL true wine lovers!) In fact, they day we visited Fenn Valley, they were disgorging their latest sparklers and had to close a portion of their operations to the public (they do daily wine production/facility tours) due to the natural CO2 release from the disgorgement. I guess that makes sense -- don't need anyone passing out due to lack of Oxygen!

My "everyday" wine drinking palette tends to prefer dry, high acid, citric white wines, so when we completed our tasting, it was a little surprising that my favorite wine of the day was a 2012 Late Harvest Vignoles. Apparently, weather conditions contributed to a very unique harvest that year, that ultimately resulted in an unusual, yet deliciously fragrant and sweet vintage. It was a nice, unexpected departure from my "usual", and a tasty reminder to allow myself to stay openminded and explorative when playing in the infinite possibilities world of wine.

If you find yourself in MI, I recommend a visit to Fenn Valley.  The tasting fees are low, and the pours are HEFTY. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon!

That's me and my hefty pour at Fenn Valley in SouthWest Coastal Michigan!

Loma Prieta Winery

Just days after B and I returned to MPLS, I hit the road again. This time, I was off to the West Coast where I was hosting a bachelorette party for one of my oldest and best(est) friends, WJ.  WJ lives in San Francisco, adjacent to Sonoma and Napa, which are arguably among the best wine valley regions in N. America and the world, and I've been lucky to spend a tiny little slice of time in both regions during past NoCal visits. Napa and Sonoma were both in the mix as potential locations for our Bachelorette weekend; however we ultimately decided to take a different tactic for the weekend and head down the coast to Santa Cruz for the weekend instead.

We had a "wild" bachelorette weekend in the literal sense that we spent a lot of our time soaking up nature, with an awesomely rejuvenating hike through the redwoods of Nisene Marks State Park and getting our Namaste on with a private cliffside yoga session overlooking the Pacific.  But it wouldn't be a #NoCal bachelorette without a winery visit, so we made sure to carve in time to visit the gem that is Loma Prieta.

Loma Prieta sits in the midst (and mist) of the Loma Prieta Mountain, about 45 minutes outside of Santa Cruz, in Los Gatos. The day we were there, the weather was an uncharacteristically warm 80 degrees, and the views stretched to infinity, offering a perfect setting for an afternoon of wine drinking.

Loma Prieta is considered a "boutique" winery, due to its limited production (less than 3K cases. For comparison sake, the Mammoth Mondavi sells MILLIONS of cases annually). Ironically, LP is the LARGEST producer of "Pinotage" in N. America.

For the uninitiated (which included me until a few weeks ago) "Pinotage" is a hybrid grape that was first born in S. Africa, in a marriage of Pinot Noir and a grape called Cinsault, which originated in Southern Rhone, France. LP does a fine job with this special hybrid. I especially enjoyed a unique Sparkling vintage (2014) Blanc de Noirs so much that I bought a bottle for WJ and her "fancy" (aka fiancee), and then I MADE THEM OPEN IT the night before I flew home, just so I could have a glass. Y'all already know I'm "Klassy-with-a-K" like that!

If you find yourself in Santa Cruz...or in San Fran...its well worth the trip to this, perhaps unexpected little winery outside of the "classics" of Napa and Sonoma that you may already know and love.  Need more convincing? Just check out the views!

Blue Skies, smiling at me at Loma Prieta Winery (hey! That rhymes!)

Cheers, mates! I can't wait to check a few more of my wine related items off my 2016 LIST!

Monday, July 18, 2016

Hello, World.

I've been pretty anxious lately. Out of sorts and off kilter, and feeling a bewildering mixture of completely 'blah' and apathetic in one breath, and then oscillating to feeling oversensitive and highly emotional in the next breath.  So, what's it going to be, mind? Do we care, or don't we?

I've been sweating the small stuff...and the big stuff. Some days, I just want to hide from the world and take a long nap or just veg in front of the TV all day and escape my reality until it's time to go to bed again. And, truth be told, some days I've done just that. Yay, depression and anxiety.

Today, I woke up on a trajectory of bland escapism. I had a bad dream last night (a dream that I can't even remember now), and when I woke, I felt a hollowness in the center of my body, the one that murmurs and hypnotizes, "eh, who cares if you don't do anything doesn't matter"...immediately followed by feeling of low grade despair that threatened to set in a as a result of that 'nothing', hopeless feeling. Good old apathy with its sidekick, sadness.

But, I got up and I made myself a cup of coffee, and for some reason I felt that today was a day that, for my own sanity and peace, I really needed (NEEDED) to "fake the funk" and ignore the shades of blue and gray vibrating in my head. Honestly, I'm not sure how I managed to escape the  hijack and convince myself that, yes, it was a good idea to get up, get moving and do anything (ANYTHING at all!) rather than retreat from all action and the blurred incentives of vitality, but I did.  I got my ass right on up. And, I ended up having a pretty productive and enjoyable day, culminating in a bottle (ahem 2!) of wine with my husband out on the deck, under the twinkle lights of the stars above (or, more noticeably, our Amazon-ordered outdoor hanging globe lights) amidst a summer cool Minnesota evening.

My day wasn't anything exciting or extraordinary. I sorted through a lot of boxes left over from the move, and I worked on some household organization while B was busy sharpening his carpentry skills outside in our beautiful backyard, building custom University of Michigan Cornhole boards for our housewarming party coming up next Friday (and hey, if you live in the TCs, you know us, you were missed on the original invite, and you wanna come par-TAY next Fri at our place, please reach out! We'd love to see you! We're contemplating whipping up some Jell-o shots, like we're 21 again! Hey, we don't have kids, so this type of partying is a rational conclusion! Plus, we have a hot tub and a fire pit! Yessss!). We took a late lunch break for some Jimmy John's and DQ...and several hours later we enjoyed a late night dinner of grilled chicken and homegrown basil and tomatoes for a Caprese salad (and those 2 bottles of wine), along with a lively phone call to my older sister, E. Simple pleasures.

I also decided, in my desire to set a new course for my weary and muted mind, that today was a good day to get to 2016 List Tackling.  So, this evening, I headed to Yoga by Candlelight at my yoga home here in Minne.  I'd never been to the candlelit practice, though it's something I'd wanted to exeprience (#14 on the 2016 list).

Through the years, especially since moving to Minneapolis, practicing yoga has become one of my reliable safe havens, a place where I can go to feel connected to the world, to reintegrate when I'm "out of body" and all over the map with my anxiety. And tonight, yoga by candlelight offered just that.

To be fair, the candlelit class was a lot like regular yoga. Class commenced at 7, so the sun was still seeping in through the skylights, and the candlelight itself was more of a footnote than the main idea (not surprising at this time of the year). Still, I found myself practicing with a group of people that I don't always see in the classes I attend regularly. I think that practicing with those "new to me" people, that energy shift, was just what I needed.

At each yoga practice, we are encouraged to set an intention or a dedication for our practice that day. I usually pick a person I care about to dedicate my practice to, or a way of being that I'd like to encourage in myself (like "peaceful" or "empathetic"). Today, the words "hello, world" were what my mind mustered.  In my mind, "hello, world" meant that I wanted to focus on engaging with the world and with my emotions, rather than defaulting to ignoring those feelings, to hiding.

During savasana, our candlelit teacher read "The Guest House."  This poem was exactly what I needed to hear at this point in my life, on this day.  The Guest house is about accepting all of our emotions and feelings, good, bad and apathetic, and welcoming in the lessons that each of those emotions has to teach us. However unpleasant, we invite the experience of those emotions in, to learn from those feelings... and then we move on..."to make room for some new delight" (as the poem says).

So, here we are.  I'm going to flow with it, to float with it. To let go, and welcome whatever it is that surfaces.

"Hello, world."

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Big Stuff

I'm going to cut to the's been a rough summer.

The world seems to be in some sort of maddening tailspin of pain and suffering, rampant with unbridled and age-old racism, bigotry, oppression and terrorism, filled with a self-righteous overpopulation that often seems more focused on being "Christian, white and right" than on living with compassion and love and prioritizing common ground, equality and human kindness to all. This summer alone we've been witness to Philando Castile, Miami, Brexit, Nice, Dallas, Trump and Pence...and a list of other global human driven atrocities that grows longer by the day and by the hour.

But, I'm not completely hopeless about the big stuff. I know that our world is resilient and capable of positive change. I know that we can find our way to more peaceful, compassionate and equal footing for everyone.

I don't know the answers, but I know that change at least starts by acknowledging the realness of the problems we have and their complexities, by having deep and productive conversations about important issues even if they make us uncomfortable, by educating ourselves, and by getting involved in our communities and showing love and compassion to one another. Being a bystander and an apologist is not an option for me.  I plan to be a part of those big, important next steps. "One foot in front of the other." It's time to move forward.

The Small Stuff

I'm going to cut to the's been a rough summer.

This is a personal blog, so I'm going to talk specifically about one of my own, individual challenges. The small stuff, if you will. I acknowledge that my personal challenges seem petty, pale and insignificant in comparison to the pain, suffering and injustices happening to people all over the world.

At the end of the school year, I was laid off from my guidance counseling assistant job and the school that I so thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated. In more specific terms, I was "bumped," which I guess softens the blow a little, because I know that the people I worked for valued my hard work and abilities and did not want to see me permanently pack up my office and leave.

Last year I left my job on my terms, ready to leap into the unknown, eager for change and excited for the possibilities. This year,  I left on someone else's terms...the motivation that revved me up last year is harder to muster up...and right now I'm feeling a bit adrift.

Adrift...but not hopeless. I've learned a lot about myself this past year and that I am more resilient and capable of change than I previously thought. I know that eventually I will find my way. I have some ideas on my next steps, and now it's a simple matter of choosing one rabbit to chase."One foot in front of the other." It's time to move forward.

But that's just the small stuff...

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Self Care & Self Reflection

Three months ago, I took the first steps down an entirely new career path when I accepted a guidance counseling assistant position at a public school in St. Paul. Specifically, I oversee the standardized testing that occurs at our school, I manage student records, and I even have the opportunity to advise students on certain topics -- but I'm not a licensed counselor, so my opportunities in that realm are a bit more limited.

My past three months working in education have been an incredibly fulfilling and enlightening experience.  My position provides me with a looking glass into several directions I could potentially pursue if I ultimately decide to build a long-term career in education. I've had people ask if I plan to someday become a licensed counselor, or would I ever want to consider teaching and get a teaching licence, or perhaps I might eventually pursue a position at a district level versus supporting a specific school, or maybe even venture into political pursuits or policy making that focus on education improvement (I do have many thoughts on testing now!). And yes, I've let my mind wander and ponder what each of these paths could look like. But, it's all a bit premature, given I'm so completely new to this world and I have a lot to learn.

However, for now, I'm trying to focus on my current responsibilities and do them to the best of my abilities without getting too swept up in the excitement and stress of identifying the next big achievement goal. A key lesson from my career pause, after all, is to stay present in the "here-and-now", to live fully in each moment without getting too caught up in a specific narrative. It can be fun to dream, sure, but I have a tendency to get swept up in those dreams only to then to inject unreasonably high expectations and stress so that those dreams shift into more of a nightmarish territory.

It's not always easy to stay present, and I do find that now that I'm working full time again, I fall victim to some of my old and exhausting habits. My perfectionist inclinations and my inner control freak have followed me into my new career path. Those traits did not magically disappear just because I left the "high powered" world of corporate strategy and consulting. However, now I am much better about catching myself when these tendencies surface, and guide myself to a gentler, more caring state of mind.

In December, just before I started my new job, I chose to end my "career time out" with a Yoga retreat to Tulum, MX with my yoga studio. For 5 days, I had the incredible gift to practice self-care in an epic, inspiring, natural paradise, to reflect upon the big risk that I took when I left my job and finally allowed myself to imagine a very different sort of life, and redefine what "success" means for me (hint: it's not about "stuff" or income brackets).

Returning to that state of mind that I captured during my time off and during the Yoga retreat helps me to reconnect with my true intentions for the kind of life I want to live and the person I want to be. When I find the stress kicking up and the worry sinking in, I remind myself to "float down the river", to embrace the ambiguity and transition, and to relish in each messy, beautiful, chaotic, glorious moment.

Seaside Selfie. 
 Lighter in mind, body (by more than 25# at the time this photo was taken...even more now!) and spirit than when I first left my  job at the end of May, 2015.

Easy breezy beach side in Mexico.

Here I am, climbing a Mayan Ruin.

I captured this majestic sunrise my last morning in Tulum. 
What a perfect way to end one chapter, and begin another.