Small Gifts Can Bring Great Joy

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Just like with a lot of people, my funds are a little tight these days.  Every month when I get paid, I look at everything I want, and more importantly everything I need, and can only manage to chip away a tiny bit at my list.  It can take months just to save up for something like a prescription refill or a car repair.  So quite awhile ago I gave up on shopping, or more specifically window shopping.  While my girlfriends like to go to the mall and look at everything new, I prefer not to see what’s out there.  After all, my list is already long enough.  I don’t want to add to it any
more.  And seeing everything I want and can’t afford just makes me depressed.  So when my friends go shopping, I stay home.

However, one side effect that has developed since I started avoiding the malls is that I feel extremely deprived.  I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel this way.  When you can’t afford the dentist, much less new shoes or the occasional movie, you tend to feel the joy has been sucked out of life – at least that’s how I’ve been feeling lately.  So the other day I decided to try to change the way I was feeling – at least a little bit.  I have a few things that I’ve been putting off buying for a long time and just can’t wait on any more, like clothes for work, some new bath towels, and an umbrella.  So I decided that each payday I would try to buy one small thing.  The next time I deposited my paycheck I would go to the mall and some retail outlets to shop.  And I did.  I went to stores I would normally avoid, as well as those I knew I could afford.  By the time I had spent the whole day shopping guess what I had bought?  A $4 pair of earrings.  I looked at clothes, I shopped for towels, I checked out color choices for rainy day umbrellas.  But what I came up with was that I didn’t really love anything I saw, so I decided I could wait a little longer.  But I did love those $4 pair of earrings I found at Forever XXI.  In fact, after purchasing them I immediately put them on and wore them the rest of the day.

And by the time I had returned home, I had a pleasant surprise.  I no longer felt deprived.  I was happy with my small purchase.  I had spent less than $5, and it was great.  So I reevaluated my thoughts on window shopping.  Perhaps if I gave myself permission to buy things occasionally I wouldn’t feel like life was so lean.  And trusting myself to buy only what I love and what I can afford means I can window shop from time-to-time  without feeling the need to buy everything in sight.  Life suddenly seemed so much better and richer from that one small change.

And this reminded me of why I started this blog.  Joy can often be found in the moment in small things.  If I can appreciate these occurrences, then how much more joy will I feel when something truly stupendous happens?  So until that time when I’m surrounded by wealth (fingers crossed), I’m going to wear my new earrings often, go shopping occasionally, and smile every night when I come home to my cute elephant teapot!  (See “Small Treasures” published May 21, 2011.)  And I’m going to count my blessings every day – because in all the ways that matter, I’m already truly blessed.

Scents and Sensibilities

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What do you smell when you walk through the door each night?  Last night’s dinner?  The cat box that needs changing?  Your husband’s dirty laundry?  Do those scents really say “Welcome home,” or do they say “Go away?”  How much can you relax and find comfort in your home if you’re trying to avoid breathing too deeply?  Perhaps it’s time to change all that.

The olfactory system is actually wired directly into our brain and is tied to our memory system.  We are not aware of it all the time, but it’s always working despite our attention or lack thereof.  That’s why certain smells can transport you back to an actual event in your life.  Maybe the smell of cookies baking reminds you of holidays spent with friends.  Perhaps a whiff of pipe smoke reminds you of your grandfather and the stories he used to tell.  It could be the salty tang of ocean air reminds you of walks along the beach with a past love.  Scents have also been shown to affect our moods.  Oranges and other citrus fruits can lift our spirits.  Rose oil heals a broken heart.  And certain floral scents, such as jasmine, can be an aphrodisiac.  But whether a scent reminds you of a pleasant memory, changes your mood, or just makes your house smell better, isn’t anything better than the smell of dirty socks?

There are many ways to make your home smell better.  Candles, scented oils, incense, baking bread, flowers, and even the smell of clean laundry can make your home more enjoyable to live in.  Experiment with what is best for you and what you like.  Then use whichever you choose liberally throughout your home.   One of my favorite scents is Satsuma by The Body Shop.  Whether it’s the body butter or the home fragrance oil, just breathing in this mandarin scent makes me happy.  I also love candles, fresh flowers (especially lilies), and the smell of anything sweet being baked in the oven.  I’ve found that when I come home the day after something wonderful has scented the air, I’m actually happy to be home.  I pause after closing the door at night, take a big breath, and smile.

So find what works for you and then try it and see how you feel.  It’s worth remembering that scent can decorate our home as well as furniture and art, and it is definitely worth the trouble.  And if you get the chance, drop me a line and let me know what your favorite flower, candle, etc. is.  I’d love to find something new I haven’t tried before.

Small Treasures

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They say, “Your home should rise up to meet you.”  It should be your “sanctuary,” your respite from the world.  I say “they” are absolutely right.  Unfortunately, my home does not greet me when I enter, although it is a refuge from the chaos of daily life.  First of all, it’s not exactly a home.  After swearing many years ago that I would never live in an apartment again – here I am.  Secondly, when I moved into this apartment I had to downsize considerably.  I unexpectedly moved out of a four bedroom home and into a one bedroom apartment.  I left almost all of my furniture behind.  I bought a few things and was given a few others.  Nothing in the living room matches.  Antique style armchairs compete with a country-style couch.  The entertainment center is a 90’s “no style” behemoth.  When I enter the front door, I immediately ascend a long staircase that is sterile and bare until you reach the very top.  Luckily the other rooms aren’t bad which gives me some hope.  But there’s definitely nothing in the central living area that says “welcome home.”

While I would love to have a home that makes me smile when I enter, I have limited funds with which to create this oasis.  The necessities of daily life are always more important than decorating touches.  And no matter how many decorating shows I see on restyling on a budget or finding  the perfect furnishing touch at Goodwill, I never seem to have the same luck as the participants on the show.  So I had pretty much given up on the redecorating project that is my living room.  Then a Target commercial, of all things, made me review this.

The beginning of May, Target launched their “Calypso” line.  Full of tropical style clothing and home accessories, the commercials were full of bright colors and happy themes.  And as all the different images flashed by on the screen, I saw the cutest little elephant teapot I’d ever seen.  While I used to collect teapots in another life, I had long since given up that hobby.  And even though I don’t see myself starting that collection again, I couldn’t quit smiling when I saw her.  And after I found out she was only $13.00, I bought her and took her home.  (Yes, she’s definitely a “she.”  She’s colorful, feminine and full of charm.  If you don’t think so, just look at her picture!)

She is currently sitting on my fireplace mantle.  She doesn’t, of course, fit in with anything else in the living room.  But she makes me smile when I see her.  I’m hoping she will be the start of a new decorating theme, one that’s playful, bright, and joyful.  However, even if the rest of my decor remains bland and uninspiring, at least one bright thing welcomes me home in the evenings.  So even if my home doesn’t “rise up to greet me,” at least it’s starting to stir.  And hopefully that stirring will lead to new life, for both my home and me.  So now I have a plan for my new living room.  I want something rich and warm, but also whimsical and joyful.  If I can continue to find that for around $15 per item, I may just be in luck!

All Things Chocolate

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If you spend enough time with me on this blog, you will discover that I LOVE chocolate,  and the darker the better.  I love the combination of bitter and sweet, the tart and the smooth, the bite and the comfort of dark chocolate.  I love it in drinks, cakes, candy – it doesn’t matter where.   And when it’s combined with other sweet and tart flavors it’s even  better.  As for white chocolate – sorry to those of you who love this version of the sweet, but to me it’s just faux chocolate.  (Is white chocolate even chocolate?  I don’t think so!)

I also love to bake.  While I go through periods where I enjoy cooking, I absolutely love to make something sweet, nurturing, and comforting in the form of cakes, cookies, etc.   And while I also love to eat, my enjoyment of baking poses somewhat of a dilemma – I don’t have enough people to share it with, and I can’t eat it all myself.  (Most of my friends are those healthy kinds of people who are always on some kind of a diet.  And while I believe in being healthy, I also believe in indulging your taste buds whenever you need a little sweetness in  your life.)  So my hopes are that in sharing some of my favorite recipes here with you, I can share a little of my bakery joy as well.

Today it was gloomy and stormy here, and I had the day off, so it was the perfect day for baking.  I decided to make a banana quick bread loaded with dark chocolate chips and dried cherries.  Following is my recipe for that wonderful delight.  It’s covered with a dark chocolate glaze, but you can always leave it off should you decide to share it with your somewhat healthy friends!  (Actually, the bread is very sweet and delicious without the glaze.  Even I think it can be a little too sweet covered in even more dark chocolate.  But if you’re making it for someone in a comfort crisis, or want more of a cake-like loaf, then by all means add the extra chocolate.)

Chocolate Glazed Banana Bread with Dark Chocolate Chips and Dried Cherries

Bread:

1 cup mashed bananas *              1 tsp. baking soda

1 cup dried cherries                      1 tsp. cinnamon

¾ cup dark chocolate chips            1 tsp. nutmeg

1 ¼ cups flour                               2 eggs

¾ cups sugar                                ½ cup cooled, melted butter

½ cup plain (full fat) yogurt           1 tsp. vanilla extract

Glaze:

1 cup confectioners’ (or powdered) sugar       2 tbsp. dark chocolate cocoa powder

2 tbsp. milk                                                 ¼ tsp. vanilla extract

A pinch of salt

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly butter a 9 X 5 inch loaf pan.

In mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Mix in your chocolate chips and dried
cherries.  Set aside.

In another bowl, whisk together eggs, melted butter, yogurt, and vanilla extract.  Then add in your mashed banana.

Gently fold your wet ingredients into your dry ingredients and mix just until blended.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan.  Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, approximately 55 minutes.

Cool 30 minutes in loaf pan on a wire rack.

Gently loosen sides and turn loaf out to finish cooling on the rack.

Once the loaf has completely cooled, make your glaze.

Whisk together confectioners’ sugar, dark cocoa powder, milk, vanilla extract, and salt.

Place loaf on a shallow dish or pan with sides and lined with wax or parchment paper.  (A cookie sheet works well for this.)

Pour your glaze over the loaf.  Allow to set for 15 to 20 minutes.

Enjoy!  (Goes great with a glass of milk or hot coffee)

Baker’s note on mashed bananas:  When your bananas are overly ripe, brown, and spotted, store them in the freezer.  Remove them 2-3 hours before you wish to use them for baking.  They defrost quickly.  They will be soft and mushy.  Cut off the end of the peel and squeeze them  into your measuring cup.  This makes them easy to measure and there’s no mashing as they’ve already become a tasty mush!  However, you must use them that day.  You cannot restore them after they’ve defrosted.

This bread will infuse your house with the smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, so breathe deeply while it’s baking.  The sight of the glazed bread will delight any chocolate lover but not as much as the taste.  The combination of banana, dark chocolate, and cherry will make any taste bud sing.  If you love baking like I do, you will enjoy the process of watching all the ingredients come together into something truly wonderful.  And for all the chocolate lovers in your life, including yourself, there will be a few days of chocolate bliss to savor and delight you.

Comfort Food for the Soul

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According to Thomas Moore, the author of Care of the Soul and other books, when we feed the body we feed the soul.  That may be why there is such a thing as comfort food.  We all know that when we yearn for mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese, grandma’s mashed potatoes, or Aunt Sarah’s chocolate cake, we’re not trying to feed our hungry stomachs but are instead trying to satisfy some longing deep inside.  If we were just hungry, then any food would work.  But when we crave those foods of our childhood, we are looking for the love, comfort, and nurturing that accompanied them.

When I was a little girl and sick or upset, my mom would make me hot tea with milk and honey and tuck me into bed to drink it.    Many years later, this is still the first thing I turn to during times of ill-health or gloomy, depressing afternoons.  When I was small, I also spent some of the best times with my mother baking for holidays or school events.  My mother was a working mom and often gone long hours of the day.  She often missed outings we had planned together.  But when we were baking, it was just the two of us creating magic and sharing our time and love through sugary treats.  No wonder that I love to bake, as well as eat, confections made from scratch.  In a pinch and at the end of a really stressful day, anything chocolate with a glass of wine spells relief to me.  But if I have time, making something baked and hot from the oven brings me a little closer to home and the love I’m missing.

It’s no wonder diets don’t really work.  As we strive to eat healthier, we inevitably deny ourselves foods that not only feed our bodies but feed our souls.  If we would allow ourselves to have these foods occasionally, we might find it easier to behave the rest of the time.  Everybody needs love and comfort, preferably from the people in their lives.  But if that is not present, then search for the real thing – real potatoes  mashed with butter, cream, and salt, macaroni baked with real cheese and breadcrumbs on top, a homemade chocolate cake with butter cream frosting.  The preparation as well as the consumption of these foods will feed your spirit better than a knock-off.  Not to mention that you’ll probably want to share it with someone else (unless you choose to eat it all yourself!) which will bring you praise and adoration as well.  So what could be better?  Comfort, praise, and adoration in the form of small, delicious morsels.

Join me at my next blog.  Not sure where to start?  Well I suggest banana bread with dark chocolate chips, cherries, and a dark chocolate glaze.  Lesson to follow. . . .

Comtemplating the Wonder of Bunnies

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Living in the present moment means you have to be open to the little things that might entice you down a different path from what you’d planned.  It means noticing the subtle and following where it goes.  It means that when you’re sitting reading a book, and some unexpected blur goes speeding past your window, you get up and go look instead of continuing your story.  That’s what I did, and what a wonderful surprise.

Now I have to preface this story with the fact I currently live in the city.  I love nature.  I miss living surrounded by the beauty of nature as I did when I was young.  I would move in a heartbeat but am currently stuck in a place largely made of cement.  So I don’t get a chance to experience much of the natural world.  But because I took a moment to follow my curiosity the other day, I was of reminded of the playfulness of nature that enchanted me so much as a child.  So to continue . . . .

This blur goes speeding past in my peripheral vision.  I don’t know what part of my brain registered that it wasn’t a car, a child on a bicycle, or a kid on a skateboard.  Somewhere my brain registered “bunnies,” and I looked up in time to catch not 1, not 2, but 5 rabbits chasing each other down the sidewalk.  I got up quickly to look out the window and saw these five rabbits playing with each other.  Two chased each other in circles on a neighbor’s lawn.  Two chased each other back and forth across the street.  One jumped up and down trying to join in both sets of games and finally just sat down and watched.  It was the most delightful thing I’d seen in a long time.  I watched them play for a good 10 – 15 minutes.  Then the neighborhood got busy again with traffic, people, and dogs, and the rabbits returned to their home.

I think wonder is the hardest of the senses to engage.  Wonder occurs because we encounter something unexpected and delightful.  The older we get, the more bored and jaded we become.  I think that’s why so many people like to travel and try new things.  They have the chance to experience that sense of wonder again by visiting new places or accomplishing something different.  And that’s a great way to open yourself to the possibilities.  But it’s also possible to have wonder come and knock on your door.  The next time it does will you notice it?  I hope so,  because the 15 minutes I spent watching the rabbits play made my entire day special.  I wish that surprise and joy for you too.

Engaging the Senses

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 “Just Be.”  “Live in the present moment.”  “Today is the only day there is.”  “Be here now.”  Funny how all these injunctions to live more fully in the present moment lose their power when your current moment is terrible, and all you want is to escape.  And yet after spending many years trying to run away from my troubles, I think perhaps there is something to all this sage advice.

The past decade has not been my best.  I’ve suffered a lot of loss.  Among other things, I’ve lost two dear and treasured relatives, four beloved pets, a career, my house, an extensive support system, and a way of life.  None of these things I gave up.  All of these things were taken away from me.  At first, I was just numb.  Then I tried diligently to put my life back together.  However, no matter what I tried, I hit a dead end.  I’ve worked until I’m physically and emotionally exhausted trying to put my life back together with no luck.  And every time I didn’t think I could possibly try anymore, a little voice would whisper, “just be; surrender to what is.”

When this happened I would breathe a sigh of relief that I could quit trying so hard.  But of course that only lasted until I’d regained my energy, and then I would start desperately trying again.  But after so many years of trying, I have to admit that I’m not getting anywhere.  So maybe I should try a different approach.  Maybe I should concentrate on finding joy in the moment.  Maybe I should pay more attention to the small gifts each day brings.  Maybe I should quit focusing on some time in the future and quit missing what’s right in front of me.

 How will I do that here?  Well I believe that paying attention to the present requires engaging our senses.  We have five senses that we all know of:  sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound.  Sarah Ban Breathnach, author of Simple Abundance and Romancing the Ordinary, believes we have two more:  wonder and intuition (or knowing).  So I’m going to expirement by engaging my senses and looking for joy in the present moment.  I’ve named this blog “Joy Rising” because I hope to see an increase of joy in my daily life and to be able to record that here.  Plus, there’s something wonderful about those two words that make me think of a geyser getting ready to burst forth and touch everything around it.  Won’t you join me in this adventure?  I’d love to hear what makes your present moments special and memorable as well.  Here’s to all the joy we can discover together!

– Kandice