30 Pieces of Advice for Turning 30

Today is my 30th birthday.  I am normally not a birthday person, but this year it is a milestone, and a number like 30 does not go unnoticed.

I’d like to offer some advice that I love and every day have a new opportunity to implement in my life.  We are all works in progress.

Please leave your own advice as a comment.  I’d love to get more

1.  Believe in something larger than yourself.  If you ever forget, stand in front of an ocean, lay down under a tall tree, or stare up at the sky.  Nature definitely reminds me of a larger universe.

2. Be grateful.  Gratitude changes your attitude about life.  By focusing on the good things in your life, no matter how small, that goodness increases.  Gratitude reminds us that our cup really is overflowing.

3.  Be creative.  We are made from a Creator and have that creative electricity flowing thorugh us.  Don’t block it, give it to the world.

4.  Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”  Whichever moment you are in, live that moment.  Don’t always rush to the answer because it’s often in grappling with a question that we truly discover who we are.

5.  Adopt a pet.  Give hope to the ones that have been forgotten and abandoned; it’s a pleasant surprise who really helps whom.

6. A day without laughter is a day not lived.  Young children laugh 300+ times a day, adults less than 20.  Balance your stress with laughter.  Read comics, watch funny TV shows, read authors like David Sedaris.

7.  Failure is a part of life.  Everybody falls on this path.  Be the kind of person who can get back up.  Even better, get up and help someone else get back up as well.

8.  Speaking of failure, a lesson I learned from Oprah, who learned it from Dr. Maya Angelou, whenever I am at a low point, I ask God, “What’s the lesson here?  What do you want me to learn?”

9.  Move.  Move your body.  Dance. Exercise.  Travel.  Live somewhere you never thought you would.

10.  Develop rituals and traditions.  We are a part of the natural world and need to maintain that rhythm by punctuating it through physical acts.  Start with yearly traditions (holidays are and easy one), continue with monthly, and even daily ones (eating dinner with family).

11.  Compromise is a part of life.  right, honey?

12. Be an independent woman, but depend on love.  Yes I’m married, but I have my own savings account, my personal pursuits, and my own retirement account.

13.  Pursue joy.  It can be something as small as painting your kitchen green or wearing beautiful pearl earrings or planting snapdragons.  For me, lots of small joys everyday are better than 1 big joy only once a month.

14. From Finding Nemo.

15. Understand your relationship to fear.  Fear’s a natural part of life, but manifests in different ways for people.  For some it is more powerful.  Some are born with the gift of honing it.  Fear is a master of illusions.  As soon as you know its tricks, you will better be able to move through it.

16. Life is full of irony.  Some favorites from my own life include running a half marathon at the heaviest weight in my life, being a high school English teacher and an awful speller, and marrying a math whiz even though I still have to do addition with my fingers.

17. Breathe.  Try meditation or whenever you feel overwhelmed, just do 10 breathing excersizes (breathe in for a count of 5, hold for 2, breathe out for 5).  The act not only slows you down and centers you, but it also brings more oxygen into your body (which gives a little oxygen high).

18. Cook like an artist, use color whenever possible.  Bring in lots of color from vegetables and fruits.  Color makes for a really pretty meal (something to notice and be thankful for), and it also gets more vitamins and minerals in your body.

19. Get a plant.  Even if you have a black thumb or are a wannabe green thumb (like me).  I love Christmas Cactus for a beginner plant.  They are forgiving if you forget to water them and brilliant when they flower.  If the plant dies, just get another one and try again.  All the best gardeners have had plants die on them.

20. Know who you are and find kindred spirits.  I’m an introvert and love to read.  It took me close to 25 years to not be embarrassed by the fact that an ideal Friday night for me is cozied up at home with a good book or movie.

21. Connect to the flow.  Some call it God, chi, energy, creativity. Whatever your nomenclature, connect to it.  The best ways I’ve found to connect and go with the flow of life are writing, walking, prayer, and poetry (especially Mary Oliver’s poems).

22. Simplify, simplify, simplify.  William Morris wrote “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  We often hold onto the past in our objects.  Keep the most important things but clear out the rest.  According to feng shui, this clearing process helps the energy of life move more freely in yours.

23.  Cry when you need to.  It is a great release.  It is also a form of being in the flow of life. Damming up emotions, stops life from flowing.

24. Go to bed at the same time as your partner.  It can only lead to  more intimacy.  You will either make love more or talk more.

25.  “The best students get the hardest tests.”  This is a quote from Iyanla Vanzant who was on Oprah’s life class special.  (Have you noticed a trend with the lessons from Oprah?)  God gives hard tests for us to learn from.

26. Your instinct knows.  Part of quieting down and connecting to the flow is to be able to hear that whispering voice that is your instinct.  Trust it and reconnect with it through prayer, writing, or walking whenever in doubt.

27. You can do anything for 15 minutes.  This is a great way to combat procrastination.  Set a timer and tell yourself that you’re just doing it for 15 minutes.

28. Hospitality is a form of worship.  This is a Jewish proverb from the Talmud.  The people and the memories you create with them are what make a house a home.

29. Call your mom or go visit her in person.

30. Don’t worry if you’re 30 and still not sure exactly which direction you want your life to go.  I like to remember that Jesus was 30 when he started his ministry.  There is plenty of time to discover your purposes in life.

What else do you think is important for a 30 year old?


Feeling Discouraged? Bake Bread

Has it been one of those days?  The kind when discouragement is your companion all day long.  When anxiety seems to follow you like a cat that’s been run over looking to you for a place to die.  It may be your health.  Worries over someone else’s health.  Your job or lack thereof.  Maybe your closest relationships have been on edge.

Everything needs a breath of faith.  A booster shot of peace.  Some days when we are fixated on hoping some problem will resolve, we need a reminder of the power of process.

My recommendation: bake bread.  The real kind.  Yeast, water, a little sugar, flour, salt, oil.

There is something visceral about baking bread.  The feeling of taking basic ingredients and transforming them.

Its inherent creativity gives us a sense of accomplishment.  Baking bread is not an instant gratification, the entire process reminds us to be patient; we can’t control things.  We have to let things take their course.  The good thing about bread baking is its course takes a couple of hours, whereas we have no clue with life’s other problems.

Start with the yeast.  A simple creature, easily overlooked.  These drab brown-grey granules are the size of sand.  But when we give it a little coaxing, we awaken it.  Yeast needs 4 basic things: sugar, warmth, darkness, and, most importantly, time.

First, by dissolving the yeast in warm sugar water, we start the initial prompting.  The yeast eats the sugar and emits carbon dioxide in the form of bubbles fizzing to the surface.  If the yeast is good, the bubbles will form a beige film on top and you’ll start to detect that quintessential yeast smell.

After about 10 minutes, we add ordinary staples.  Nothing special.  In fact, they are all quite bland on their own, but that’s what baking is, a creative act of combining ordinary items into something warm and comforting.

Kneading follows.  It is the process of mixing it all together, creating a round ball of dough.   Here’s the one act of baking bread that requires work.

Then we cover it with a dark kitchen towel and leave it alone.  We have to trust that it will rise, but we have no power to hurry this process.  The change is subtle at first, invisible, but after the rising time, we see proof of abundance, the dough has doubled in size.

Finally, we bake it, and the final transformation occurs.  From the oven we take out a symbol of comfort and sustenance.  In about 2 hours’ time we have a warm, fresh loaf of bread, a reminder of what can happen when we let something naturally run its course.

2 baking disasters

Let’s start with a confession.  I am not a baker.

Here’s a more positive spin: I am a wannabe baker.  I love the result, hate the process.  For me, baking is like taking a hike up a mountain in a straight jacket.  Love the view, hate the climb.

Baking is everything that I am not: methodical, precise, sweet, scientific.

I have a few baking recipes that I’ve posted.

Triple Caress Mocha Chocolate Chip Cookies
Double Tree Hotel Chocolate Chip Cookies
Zucchini Bread from the Ancient Spice Routes
Persimmon Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

Half of these, I might add, have been adapted from cookbook geniuses like Crescent Dragonwagon and David Lebovitz.  That’s why the recipes are good- because the adjustments I made are superficial – some extra spice or vanilla, a variation in process.

The truth is, I can open my refrigerator door, grab 10 random ingredients and have a 3 course meal, appetizer, salad, and entree ready in 45 minutes.  But I become weak in the knees when it comes time to make dessert.

This is where my local library and its 2 aisle-long cookbook collection comes in handy.  Recently I checked out Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: from my home to yours.  It’s considered a classic.  (Don’t worry I didn’t know that fact until a month ago and I didn’t know Dorie Greenspan from Dora the Explorer)

Let’s just say that learning to bake is like learning to drive a clutch, it’s punctuated with stalls and re-starts.  Here are my two most recent baking disasters.

Disaster #1

For baking attempt #1 I tried making, for the first time ever, a cake from scratch.  Really they were cupcakes since I was taking them to a friend’s work site for her birthday. Some muffin paper cups with Snoopy holding Woodstock’s hand and “It’s good to have a friend” written on them may have also influenced my decision to make cupcakes.

The recipe called for 1 egg and 1 egg yolk.  Eggs, God help me, are for binding all the ingredients as they cook; eggs are the glue of baking.  I know this, but for some reason while I was mixing the ingredients, a bout of amnesia hit.  Really, I was being cheap.

1 egg yolk?  What am I going to do with the leftover egg white?  I can’t just toss it.  Throwing out food is sacrilegious.  I ixnay the 2nd egg.  Instead I substitute 1/4 cup of buttermilk, wrongfully thinking that the extra buttermilk, in addition to the already 1/2 cup the recipe called for, would make the cupcakes super moist.  1 egg, that’s equal to about 1/4 cup of buttermilk, right?

The result: A fragile batch of brown crumbs holding together like a pair of awkward, desperate teenagers caught kissing under the football stands.  These cupcakes shattered at the slightest bite.  We resorted to eating them over the sink because of how crumbly they were.

The lesson: I gotta learn the basics of baking before I go all mad scientist creating something else.

Disaster #2:

Also came from my measly attempts to emulate one of the cooking world’s matriarchs.  This time I was making Dorie’s recipe for pastry cream.  Kris’ uncle was in the Bay Area and came over for dinner.  The plan was to macerate (fancy word for coax the juices out of) a few nectarines, bake up some puff pastry (obviously from a box), and top it off with some homemade pastry cream.

Pastry cream is the ambrosia they put inside chocolate eclairs.  In order to get it out, people either (A) lap it out from the eclair-shell with their tongue, French-kissing style or (B) dig their finger into the eclair-shell, pull the cream out, and gratifyingly lick it off their fingers.  I am part of the B-category of eclair eaters.

I halved the recipe since there was only 3 of us, and I didn’t want this custard-temptress hovering in my fridge.  Still recovering from the previous baking disaster, I decide to follow the ingredient list and recipe scrupulously.  This recipe, halved, called for 4 egg yolks.  This time I heroically decided not to balk at all the extra egg whites.  (At least with 4 I could make an omelet.)  Even the tempering went well.  (Tempering is when you SLOWLY mix hot milk into raw egg yolks, all in an effort to avoid scrambling the eggs)  I have no trouble tempering because I paranoically do it 1/2 cup of milk at a time.  Making homemade custard-based ice cream was how I learned a slow, patient tempering.

Here’s where I went wrong.  I missed reading a sentence (or two…or three) in the recipe.  I was supposed to return the liquid to the stove and cook it a little longer to ensure that the pastry cream would solidify into a luscious custard after a stint in the fridge.

Instead, as soon as I finished tempering the milk into the egg yolks and sugar, I let it cool slightly, then unwittingly covered it and put it in the fridge.  Of course I took a taste of the liquid custard, and of course it tasted like heavenly bliss, and in an hour, it’d have the texture of pudding.

Except later, when I pulled it out of the fridge, it was still the liquid custard I had put in an hour prior.  It had failed to thicken because I missed the crucial step of warming it all up one last time.  Dessert was still fabulous, though next time, when I correctly make the pastry by reading and following every precise direction, it will be delectable rather than laughable.

Lessons from the Garden: Mystery

We have a few trees in our yard that the previous homeowners, for one reason or another decided to completely WHACK.

First we have an orange tree.You can see what’s growing in the back.

Next, a peach or nectarine, we’re not exactly sure since its fruit isn’t much more than a large pit surrounded by taut skin.And finally, our mystery tree extraordinaire.What you’ve probably noticed is that even though the entire tree has been cut down, more keeps a comin’.  The orange tree is a solid 12 feet tall.

The peach (or nectarine, whatever it is) has what seems like a million suckers coming out of its root stock.  Kris insists that we keep it one more year just to “See what happens.”

Then we have the mystery tree which last summer bloomed brilliant white flowers, no fruit. This year, the same stunning cloak of white flowers. I thought it was just a flowering tree, which is pretty darn cool in its own right, but this year…it has shockingly produced fruit.

Fruit that for the longest time mystified us.

First I thought it was a cherry tree.  The bark seemed reddish.  the leaves were oval with wave-like edging.  The fruits dangled from the branches, prompting much excitement.Then, the fruits got bigger.  And bigger.

I thought they were apples because they kept expanding.  Oh, we were excited to possibly have green Granny Smith apples.  So perfect for baking.

We left for a 2 week visit to Kris’ family in Nebraska, returned, and lo and behold, our it-was-a-cherry-now-its-an-apple tree has finally established its true identity.Bright red-violet plums.  Beautiful tangy plums that our dog Titania can eat if she sits back on her haunches and jumps up to pick them off of the low hanging branches.  She loves them.  Kris and I love them.  And finally, the mystery has been solved.

Lessons from the Garden: Patience

As a high school teacher, patience is one of my virtues and vices.  I can tell the same student 3 times in a one hour class period to take his headphones out of his ear every…single…day of the school year.  I can remind my students day-in-and-day-out, every time we write a quotation we need the citation, which is the what?  (choral response) “Page number.”

My patience struggles with wanting immediate results from teaching, which is not something I get very often.  For immediate results, I turn to gardening, more specifically, seed planting.  My nasturtiums have sprouted.  I had to move them from the raised bed since I discovered they acted like ground cover.At first, when I planted seeds, every day I checked to see if anything had come up.  After a week of nothing, I felt like a failure and would never be able to grow anything.  Nature of course choose this moment of doubt to give me glimmers of hope and remind me that I can be a gardener, even though my past attempts have been well-intentioned.As a teacher I have to remember that my job is to plant seeds.  Some of them will grow.  Sometimes I will get to see the results.  More importantly I have to be patient and have faith in the growing/learning process.

Lessons from the Garden: Resilience

Almost 95% destroyed, my sugar snap peas seemed a lost cause, but oh…that 5%; I wanted to salvage that 5%.  In the process, I learned a valuable lesson in the resilience of nature.

I found the culprit of my tragic eat-and-run, well, one of them, a slug no bigger than my pinky nail, but as hungry as a newborn.  I picked off this “slippery little sucker” (Yes, a cheap Pretty Woman reference) one morning before the sun had climbed beyond our fence.  The little vampire thought he was safe in the shade.

It was feasting on recent new growth my snap pea plant had shot out in a last ditch effort to stay alive.  Seeing these 2 leaves begin to emerge reminded me of nature’s resilience, its incredible capacity to stay alive and fight for survival, despite being utterly destroyed.

Hope restored, I began to water the plants more regularly.  I checked them in the morning while drinking coffee, seeing everyday new growth fighting for a chance and leaves building off of seemingly dead stalks.

Nature’s ability to restore and renew itself is remarkable.  Mother Nature is a master of resilience.  I think we all sometimes need to remember there is always a co-existing cycle of life and death.  When all seems lost, something new will always emerge if we are open to it.  The evidence: my first sugar snap pea flower.

Simple decor for a dinner party

We enjoy having people over, and I love to cook for them, but we are by no means fancy in our decor.  Consider our table, bought solo from a furniture store in an attempt to match the four chairs my godmother had given us.  Supplementing these four chairs are 6 folding chairs, two different styles, which get used quite often.  Using folding chairs, or our office chairs if we are really desperate for sitting space is actually quite common for our home.

Dinner Party recruits

At first I felt embarrassed.  Here we were, inviting guests over and making them feel celebrated, and we make them sit on folding chairs, eating on a card table extension.  Our friends, all graduate students or young working professionals, like us, luckily don’t care.  They come for the food.

On top of the table were simple yet sentimental pieces.  Our candle holders were forged by our friend Jocelyn whose hobby is blacksmithing.  The milk glass came from my late mother-like friend, Michele.  The roses were the first 2 that have come out this year.  Everything on the table had a story to tell which made for great conversation, especially when the woman who made the candle holders was a guest.  I came across a quote once: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  To eliminate the double negatives (I am an English teacher), think of it this way: everything in your house must be useful or beautiful.

Poetry that renders you awe-struck

Sometimes, you come across a poem or a story and it changes your entire perspective.  Upon reading it, an idea fastens to your mind and for better or worse, settles like a cat circling its napping spot.

Recently, a poem by Mary Oliver has been concentrically rippling in my mind.  I had never heard of her or read any of her poetry, but in the April 2011 issue of O, the Oprah Magazine, her poem, “The Journey” stunned me.  A work like this leaves you asking questions.  It makes you challenge your most base beliefs.  As any true work of art, it changes how you see color in the world.

“The Journey” by Mary Oliver, from her Pulitzer-prize winning book, Dreamwork.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice-
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations-
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do-
determined to save
the only life you could save.

An SLR camera-obsessed Marina Walk Part 2, Wood

Marina Walk Driftwood Obsession

Let’s talk about driftwood.  Well, I don’t really want to talk about it, I want to show you all the amazing pictures my borrowed camera took.  Of Wood.  I know, dried, dead wood that had been saltified by the San Francisco Bay and traveled who knows how far.

These pictures are proof that anyone can take beautiful shots, you just need an amazing camera that will make you feel guilty for a day after purchase, then you’ll get over it once you realize what an amazing photographer you truly are.  I have come to believe that Digital SLR cameras are like trophy wives; they make you look better, cooler, like you know what you are doing.  I think I strut more when I carry my borrowed SLR camera.

I have never taken a photography class, but I have been doing a lot of reading, learning new words that mean absolutely nothing to me at this point in time.  Words like aperture, shutter speed, f-stop, ISO.  Huh?

All I know is I like Georgia O’Keefe, and that’s the spirit I was summoning as I took these shots.

One thing I’ve learned from borrowing a Digital SLR camera is that my sense of awe increases manifold.  While I was walking I tried to juggle maintaining an eye to the grand environment that I was in while also trying to find the tiny, beautiful details.  My sense of gratitude also increased in proportion to my sense of awe.

Gratitude for beauty amidst a graveyard of tree bones.

Gratitude for lines.

Gratitude for the balance of opposites.

Playing around with an SLR Camara

My life has just been transformed.  It’s like tasting the difference between good wine and two buck Chuck.  For as long as I’ve been blogging, yeah, I know, not that long, I’ve just used my measly Blackberry camera phone for images.  Once or twice, since it’s recently been found, I’ve been able to use our pocket digital camara, an Olympus FE-20, but now, I’ve tasted the joy of my first ever SLR camera.

No, I haven’t forked over $600 for one…yet.  Actually, it’s a pretty great set-up.  I contacted the photography teacher at the school I teach at and asked if I’d be able to borrow a camara, just like the students do.  Mark, that’s the photography teacher’s name, was encouraging.  So now, for the next week, our Spring Break, I have the most incredible camara I have ever used in my possession.

Within the first hour, I’d already taken about 100 shots, playing around with the automatic settings, mainly portrait, close up, and no flash indoors.  Here are my favorites.

My first shot eva'

While Kris stayed inside, I went outside where the sun was shining.  Everywhere I read said USE NATURAL LIGHT, so I followed suggested directions.

Here’s a close up shot of one of my succulent plants.

I love the color that the camara picks up

If you look close, you can see the tiniest trace of a spider’s web on the left side of the succulent.  I love how the camera picks up the waxiness and light bouncing off the plants’ bumps.

This picture is of weeds!  Weeds!  And look how pretty they are!

Weeds next to my raised bed

Then I went to take pictures of the flowers on our peach tree, and this camera truly catches the exuberance of Spring.

So detailed and fast that I photographed a fly

Close up of peach blossoms

Of course, I went crazy photographing Titania.  She actually followed me outside, unlike my husband.

Titania, profile shot

Titania sniffing the air

Titania, over the shouldar pose

Another sniffing the air shot

Titania, a regal shot

This is so exciting.  This camera is truly able to show how incredibly cute our dog is, not to mention how funny she is too.

Oh…I’m in love.  My life has either been ruined or saved, depending on your perspective.