Everything Else, Writing

At home in the world

Downtown Champaign. Image credit: Vallejo Center for Learning Spanish, Champaign, IL

I didn’t love Champaign at first. Really, I didn’t even want to come here. 20 years ago when it was time for me to decide where to go to college, I didn’t fill out my application to UIUC—I hid it under my pile of first-choices, hoping my parents wouldn’t see. But they found it and I ended up applying, turning in my application a day before the due date, kicking and screaming all the way. I would never go to a state school. I was much too much of a snob for that.

But then my first choice wait-listed me. My second rejected me. And the third came back with a tuition fee that was double what we were expecting. So by default, I accepted my acceptance to U of I and at the end of that hot, lazy, 1997 summer, I reluctantly drove down to East Central Illinois (not Southern Illinois, like I’d originally thought) (oh my goodness I am a child of the suburbs).

The main Quad at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Image credit: StudyUSA.com

I don’t remember much about my Freshman year other than that it was a total blast. Sophomore year I met my two best friends, both of whom I’m still close with. Junior and Senior years were spent deciding not to go to med school, adding a major, and graduating with no idea what I was going to do next. After doing a summer internship in downtown Chicago my Junior year, I was terrified to live in the city by myself, so I took a job my professor put me up for in the marketing department of a Champaign publishing company.

I was young and inexperienced and the people there took me under their wing, helping me find my first apartment downtown and teaching me the ins and outs of the office world.  I worked there for three years, during which I met and married my husband. He’s from an even smaller town than Champaign. And that’s why I’m staying.

Not because he told me he would never move to the city. Not because he told me Champaign was the biggest town he was comfortable living in. Not because he’s forcing my hand in any way. But because I want to. Champaign, compared to the city and the suburbs, is simple. Life here is easy in a way I never felt it was up north. Across the street from me is a cornfield. I pass cows every day on my way to work. These novelties were things I only experienced in my childhood when we would drive up to Lake Geneva for a vacation. While I occasionally feel that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses jealousy here in Chambana, I mostly live in the niche I’ve carved out for myself, experimenting with my personal style in dressing and home decorating, driving my SUV around the farm machinery that takes over the roads every spring and fall, and watching as more and more farmland is given up for homes and businesses, watching as the “suburbs” of Champaign move ever closer to the city, watching as even this little town in the middle of nowhere succumbs to the name of progress.

I am now the proud owner of this mug. Photo credit: @shopartmart; Art Mart, Champaign IL

I’ve dreamed of living other places: Chicago, Seattle, Oregon, Florida (or really anyplace that doesn’t have winter). But as the days fly by and my calendar points to May, summer weather and all that brings, I’m thankful for the changing of the seasons. The familiarity of the trees outside my window. The ebb and flow of the planting and the harvest that I now have a front-row seat to. There is a peacefulness to living here that I have not experienced anywhere else. And though I dream of other places, other cities, and other, busier, more glamorous ways of life, this will always be home.

This was written as part of Tsh’s celebration of her new book, At Home in the World, which comes out today. You can read more about it here: http://theartofsimple.net/athome/


On being the magic maker

This Christmas, for whatever reason, I’ve been putting extra pressure on myself to make the season truly magical for my children. Maybe it’s because they’re getting older. Maybe it’s because we’re going on vacation right before Christmas and there will be fewer presents under the tree. Maybe it’s because I finished my clinical a month ago and now I have an extra six hours a week to fill. I don’t know. But I have been doing some crazy, stupid stuff, all in the name of making this the BEST CHRISTMAS EVER for them. For example:

1. We have five advent calendars.
Not one, not two, but FIVE. NO ONE NEEDS FIVE ADVENT CALENDARS. Not even my Christmas-present deprived children. They each have the traditional chocolate one. Then there’s one we hang on the wall that has activities, candy, or small presents for each day. Then there was a Tsum Tsum one that was on sale at Target and who can resist the tiny Tsums? Not me; and definitely not my children. Finally, we have a set of Advent ornaments that I filled with candy and hung all over the tree. Kind of like the Elf, you have to find a new ornament every day. Don’t get me wrong, my children LOVE all these calendars and it makes waking up in the morning so much more exciting when you know you’re going to get to eat a bunch of chocolate for breakfast. But I have to admit I went a bit overboard. It’s like Sophie’s choice though—for next year, which would I eliminate?

2. I offered to host two Christmas parties, two weekends in a row.
HOW STUPID AM I? I love the holidays and I love hosting parties and I feel like Christmas is the perfect time to do it. I get nervous about inviting people to my house—what if they don’t come? But at Christmas, I’m not the reason to come over. CHRISTMAS is the reason to come over. Christmas cookies, Christmas music, Christmas presents, Christmas wine. COME TO MY HOUSE AND I WILL MAKE ALL OF YOUR CHRISTMAS PARTY DREAMS COME TRUE. Seriously. But while I’m getting better with my whole depression/stress/anxiety thing, hosting is still a little bit nerve-wracking for me, as I found out last night when Chris and I tried to assemble 11 tiny graham cracker gingerbread houses at 9 o’clock at night LIKE THE TOTAL CHRISTMAS PARTY AMATEURS WE ARE.


3. I planned a vacation the week before Christmas.
Do you know what happens when you’re going out of town for a week right before Christmas? You have to get all your shit done EARLY. I was done shopping by December 1st. Done wrapping by the 9th. My cards went out the week after Thanksgiving. Our tree was up the week before. We actually have outside lights on our bushes that I didn’t have to nag Chris to put up. I’m not bragging here, I’m saying the holiday rush came a bit early to the Smith house, and now that it’s over I have to spend this week packing for our first family vacation to the Happiest Place on Earth. Then when I get back I’m hosting Christmas dinner. WHY DID I DO THIS TO MYSELF WHY?

It is all worth it, though (something I need to remember when I’m frantically running from grocery store to grocery store looking for milk chocolate stars). Sam is super-into our Elf, Peppermint, and if he wakes up before CJ, he waits so they can go down together and find him. Then he has to tell me where Peppermint is hiding, then bring me into whatever room to show me, just to make sure. CJ is old enough now that he remembers a lot of our little traditions, whether it’s asking me to bake a certain kind of cookie or checking on whether we’ll have ham again for Christmas dinner this year. I get such joy out of seeing their joy; I love making them happy. I love bringing the Christmas magic to them, making this season as special as I can. When they grow up, I hope they can look back on our Decembers with fond memories, and a true love for the magic of the Christmas season. And I hope that some day between now and then, I’ll find a way to be a little more relaxed this time of year.


On giving myself a break

I’m guessing it was pretty clear from my previous posts that I needed to take a break from Weight Watchers. A break from counting points, a break from healthy eating, a break from passing over the pastry counter at the grocery store, the coffee shop—even the donut truck at the farmer’s market. The deprivation had built up in me to the point that I seemingly only had two choices: binge eat everything in sight or give myself a few weeks off to enjoy the foods I was so desperately craving. I chose the latter. I stopped tracking points. I stopped weighing myself every day. I ordered that blueberry scone at Starbucks, along with my first (full-fat) peppermint mocha of the season. I bought a (small) cake and cut myself a slice for dessert multiple evenings in a row. I made cookie dough and we all sat on the couch and ate spoonfuls out of the big silver mixing bowl, not giving a thought as to whether we’d save any to bake in the oven. It was wonderful. It was just like old times. I was enjoying myself, and the food.

I didn’t completely shirk my healthy habits, though. I still had a protein shake for breakfast, a big salad for lunch, low carb snacks and (mostly) healthy dinners. What I was able to do with my newfound freedom, however, was eat a roll with my salad. Or eat the leftover pizza in the fridge without feeling guilty. I still shopped the perimeter of the grocery store, but I threw in some Christmas candy and Chex Mix for good measure. I drank a glass of wine, and I went out to eat and had a margarita. It was divine. It was exactly what I’d been missing, exactly what I needed.

I tried a couple other things as well. I researched low-carb, reading a few Atkins books and Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It. I finally incorporated eggs into my diet and now I eat them at least three times a week. I started eating full-fat foods again, like butter, coconut oil, salad dressing, and cheese, and recognized that Gina’s right when she says those things are more filling, so you can eat less of them and still feel satisfied. I completely failed my DietBet, and realized that type of accountability group just doesn’t work for me. But the biggest thing I understood about myself over these past few weeks is that when I feel like I need a break from the confines of Weight Watchers, it’s okay to take one. It really is OK.

I’m planning to get back on track today, and to stay on track for as long as I can. I’ve prepped healthy breakfasts and desserts, my menu plan has been filled out, the fridge is stocked. Last week when I was feeling particularly low, I chatted online with a Weight Watchers coach and she encouraged me by saying, “Every day you track is a day you want to lose weight.” This is so true for me. During these weeks off, I haven’t tracked. And that’s because I truly didn’t care if I was gaining. I wanted to enjoy eating again, and that meant not logging every stray Oreo that made its way into my mouth. But that also meant I was gaining weight.

Another gem I came across recently: “You are no busier than a fit person.” I have not been working out regularly lately, making excuses to spend my scheduled time at the gym watching Sam’s gymnastics class instead of sweating it out on the elliptical. There are other reasons for that—we’re in a period of transition at home, with lots of changes that affect our day-to-day schedules, and I have needed the extra time to mentally regroup. But I’ve been using the excuse that I’m too busy to work out, and I’m not. I know I’m not. I just choose to use my free time in ways that don’t include exercise. And that could change too.

What I’m trying to say is, I had a great break, but I think it’s time it ended. I enjoyed not having to limit myself, but part of me misses tracking and the structure and organization it lends to my meals. Plus, I feel like there’s some power in it. When I’m tracking, I feel more of a sense of control over what I eat, and am more motivated to eat within my points. I don’t always feel this way, but a lot of the time, it really helps. Now that I’ve been through this, I’ve learned I’m someone who not only needs treats, but needs breaks, and maybe not for just a day, but for a whole week. And if I can incorporate that self-knowledge into my weight loss journey, I think I can be that much more successful.


My Mantel

If you read this blog last fall you know I’m slightly obsessed with my fireplace mantel and the stuff I put on top of it. I spend a lot of time watching TV and therefore a lot of time staring at the mantel and its decor. For a long time, I had a variation of this (please accept my apologies for the blurriness of this old Instagram photo):

Mantel1But I was feeling like I needed a change for spring. We don’t really decorate for all the late winter/early spring holidays—I only have specific things for fall and Christmas. So I felt like a spring/summer mantel was in order. Hopefully this will get us through until September (or the end of August, who am I kidding), when I’ll be ready to put my fall stuff back up.

mantel2I will admit it took me a while to decide on the final product. I texted friends umpteen in-progress pictures and I spent way too much time and money at Hobby Lobby, but I think I’m finally happy with the result.

shutter side 1I made the pennant flag banner by taping scrapbook paper to some brown twine. The little cup next to the pitcher is actually a piece from our wedding china. And Chris had the idea to put straws in that glass jar—to me it feels like a cheeky nod to the quote on the lemonade print.

bird side 1I’m still considering getting some spring branches or berries to stick in that white pitcher. And what do you think of my garland? I made it myself! I think it maybe should go across the whole mantel. But I ran out of fabric, and another trip to Hobby Lobby would have been a little too damaging to my wallet. Also, that blue bird. I thought about that bird for days after I first saw it, and actually made a special trip to go back and get it. At first I thought he was a little too tall, but now I think he works.

Ahh, decorating. A never-ending exercise in second-guessing yourself.