Sunday, March 19, 2017

my lame to-do list


Stephen came home to crabby children, a messy house, and scrambled eggs for dinner, again.

I felt the need to defend myself, or more accurately, I felt the need to console myself and feel accomplished. I opened my planner onto the kitchen counter as Stephen tackled the dishes.

"I am going to name for you all the things I got done today. You won't be interested in most of these, and I recognize this isn't for you - it's for me. But when I'm done reading my list, I'll need you to be proud of me. Maybe even clap."

Stephen's a good sport about ridiculous requests, so in an urgent yet mocking fashion, he turned off the water, and leaned across the counter to humor me with his undivided attention.

I proceeded to read the following list:

Fold laundry
Deposit check
Return stuff to Target
Call Verizon (I deserve a medal for this one!)
Order the canvas print
Empty the dishwasher
Make eye doctor appointment
Cut the kids' nails

What a sorry looking list.

It seemed foolish to rattle off a list that only reinforced my lame life, but my unshowered body and shriveled up mind needed to feel effective. By the looks of crabby child #1, tantrum-throwing child #2, and this "well played in" house, I had little meat to show for my day.

I desperately wanted to think back on my day and feel a sense of pride, but instead, my day was unimpressive and filled with tasks a trained monkey could do.

But Stephen clapped anyway.

*****

For twelve years, I walked into school and knew a to-do list would be waiting on my desk. Sometimes it was a long one on a yellow legal pad and organized into categories like "To Copy," "Phone Calls," "Must Do Today,", and "Must Do By Friday." Other times it was a scattering of items jotted down on neon post-it notes or a sliver of white space in the corner of my plan book.

It was a never-ending list, and for every item scratched off, another two were added in its place. Nevertheless, each day was marked by tangible accomplishments - phone calls made, emails sent, lesson plans written, teachers observed, agendas drafted, meetings conducted, problems solved, presentations completed, papers graded, resources gathered. Boom.

I got stuff done. Impressive stuff.  Important stuff.

Months later, I am still adjusting to this stay-at-home-mom gig, and my list looks different, less satisfying. That rewarding feeling of an impressive, productive day is slipping away.

*****

I imagine I am not alone in my love-hate relationship with these lists. In a social setting, I complain, burdened by a to-do list that haunts my sleep, but secretly, I love that list. I love the sound a Paper Mate Flair pen makes as it crosses off a completed item, and I know I'm not the only one who adds already completed tasks to my list just to feel the rush of checking it off.

I spent three years juggling motherhood with a career and would have been grateful to complete a list like the one above in a week. I know the battle of getting nothing done, forcing myself to surrender the to-do list and play Candyland or cars instead. But these past few months, time has been on my side. With one in preschool, another obsessed with his train table, and afternoon naps still going strong (knock on wood), my Paper Mate Flair pen can swoosh through that to-do list.

Why isn't that enough? Productivity ought to be satisfying.

My day is filled with doing, but what I'm looking for are a few items to activate the 80% of my brain that is turning to mush. Dishwashers? Phone calls? Errands? Ugh. I can practically hear my brain jingling around up there.

I used to get stuff done. Impressive stuff. Important stuff.  

Don't say it. I already know.

It matters. That lame to-do list matters. 

******

I decided to stay at home with my children for many reasons, the most pressing being Stephen and I weren't content with our quality of life. Yes, we had more breathing room in the budget with two incomes, but no breathing room with our time. Weekends were spent catching up on the bare bones of survival - laundry, grocery shopping, running a Clorox wipe over the bathroom sink. And when we ignored those responsibilities and opted for a family day, we paid the price of falling even further behind. We'd blink, and it was Monday morning, back to the grind. Weeknights were exhausting, a mad rush to stay afloat until the kids were in bed, and then Netflix. So much Netflix. Who had energy for anything else?

So we made a change. I traded that never-ending, seemingly impressive to-do list for a lame one, filled with mundane, brain-mushing tasks. But it has made all the difference. 

It means we can breathe at night. We can pop popcorn and watch a movie with the kids without folding laundry and writing a grocery list at the same time. We can both put the kids to bed rather than one of us heading out to run errands after dark.

It means we can stay in our pjs on Saturday until whenever we want. We can go for a bike ride or spontaneously invite friends for dinner without feeling suffocated by the phone calls we didn't make and the chores we ignored. 

It means I can support Stephen in a way I haven't had time to before. I get to make his day a little bit easier, and hopefully a little bit better by relieving him of the trivial but necessary tasks of life, freeing him up to pour into a job he loves and a family he loves. 

*****

I am quite certain that tomorrow I will be cleaning up spilled milk for the umpteenth time while my brain wiggles and jiggles. I will mumble words unsuitable for my grandmother's ears rather than remembering what my lame daily accomplishments really mean for our family. That's the funny thing about truth - we know it, we speak it, we write it, but it doesn't always play out in our hearts and actions. 

Some days I ache for impressive - for pencil skirts, high heels, meetings, and presentations. I want to learn something and be challenged by new information. I want to solve a problem and organize an event. 

Instead, I make pancakes, sit on hold with Verizon, and entertain a toddler in the post office line. I make animal noises, talk about rainbows, and constantly answer the question "Can I have a treat?". I organize toys, manage schedules, and buckle children into car seats a dozen times a day. I take Charlotte to preschool and perfect Andrew's forward roll during parent/child gymnastics class. I sing songs at storytime and prepare the guest bedroom for upcoming visitors. I fold, iron, tickle, paint, read, hug, cook, call, build, drive, laugh, wash, teach, play, sing, snuggle, and kiss chubby cheeks. 

I get stuff done. Nothing impressive, but everything important.


Sunday, March 12, 2017

ricotta surprise

In my last post, I promised one more of our early free cable favorites. This pasta dish is the only early favorite that has stood the test of time. Ten years later, and it still makes regular appearances around the table.

Under most circumstances, I advise against dishes with the word "surprise" in the title; however, when the surprise is a large dollop of lemony ricotta cheese hidden under a pile of sausage, broccoli, and pasta, you have nothing to fear!



 Ricotta Surprise
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 pound short-cut pasta
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pound Italian sausage - mild, sweet, spicy, whatever you prefer
  • 1 large head of broccoli
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • big handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • big handful of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and while you're waiting, get to work on a few other things.

In a small bowl, combine the ricotta, lemon zest, pinch of salt, and lots of pepper. Set this aside to come to room temperature.

Preheat a large skillet over medium-high heat with olive oil. Add the sausage and break it into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Cook the meat until brown, about 5 minutes. Brown bits should be forming on the bottom of the pan. This is good news.

While the sausage is browning, cut the broccoli tops into small florets.

By this time, your water should be ready for salt and pasta. Cook the pasta until al dente. Before you drain the pasta, scoop up a cupful of the starchy cooking water to use later for the sauce.

Once the sausage is brown, remove it to a paper towel-line plate. Return the skillet to the heat and add all of the broccoli and onion. Spread the veggies out in an even layer, season with salt and pepper, and let the broccoli brown up a bit, about 2 minutes.

Add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Keep cooking a few minutes more.

Add the sausage back to the skillet along with the stock. Ladle in some of that starchy cooking water you saved, and bring it to a simmer. Don't forget to scrap up all those yummy brown bits.

Cook until the broccoli is tender and the liquids have reduced, about 2 minutes.

Add lemon juice, parsley, and drained pasta. Toss to combine and simmer another minute, allowing the pasta to soak in all that yummy sauce. Turn off the heat, add the cheese, and toss again.

Now, here's the fun part! To serve, place a large dollop of the ricotta mixture in the bottom of each bowl and bury it with hot pasta.



 I love surprises.



Tuesday, February 28, 2017

i owe it all to free cable

I'm writing a book.

Sort of.

I was taught to begin my writing with a strong lead in order to hook my reader, so I attempted a more dramatic approach there. Did it work? Are you hooked? But perhaps a more accurate statement would be: I am making a gift for my children.

If you hang around 44 & Oxford for a few minutes, you will learn of my love for mashing food, recipes, and storytelling. In our home, food sparks memories, and memories spark stories.

This first book is filled with meals and stories of our life before children - the years Stephen and I learned to cook together, party plan together, and open our home and table. I have such a soft spot in my heart for those years because they were the beginning. We were figuring out marriage, adulthood, eating without the Taylor University Dining Commons. We were creating family routines that became such a part of us I can still see them 12 years later.

I want to remember those years.

I want to remember those meals.

I want my children to peek into that first kitchen to see the disasters and the delicious.

The book will begin with a section entitled I Owe It All to Free Cable, the story of how it all began.

Take a look.

*****


I don't have an exact memory of the day we plugged my brother's old, college television into the wall. I suspect it was sometime in early December 2005 as we moved a mix of elegant wedding presents and hand-me-down necessities into a spacious but shady two-bedroom apartment in Arlington Heights. I don't think we initially realized we had inherited cable from the former tenants, and if so, we probably thought it would disappear by the end of the month, or a bill we certainly couldn't afford would soon arrive. 

Both of us had grown up in cable-less homes, so we didn't have favorite shows or channels. It probably wasn't until mid-January that I stumbled upon a cooking show.  I was ignorant to the fact that there was entire channel dedicated to food, and I certainly had never heard of this up-and-coming Food Network star, Rachael Ray. Her spunk and colorful kitchen were an initial draw for me as I watched her prepare a citrus salmon with green beans. I'd only caught the tail end of this 30 Minute Meal show but jotted down enough to help me find this recipe in one of her cookbooks. (We didn't have Internet, so I sat on the floor of Barnes & Noble flipping through each of Rachael's books until I found the citrus salmon.) To my delight, a second episode of this 30 Minute Meal show came on, and I diligently wrote down every detail for her Cornbread Pizza. 

This was the start of my love affair with the kitchen. 

Everyday from 5-6 pm, I would faithfully watch Rachael prepare gourmet feasts in thirty minutes, all the while learning the basics of the kitchen. I learned to cut an onion, dice a pepper, and mince garlic. Prior to this, I couldn't have picked a garlic clove out of a line up. I began buying fresh herbs, working alongside a garbage bowl, and utilizing multiple burners at at time. I learned to butterfly a chicken breast, indent the middle of a burger before grilling, and watch carefully when placing a cheesy casserole under the broiler. Who knew ovens had broilers?

I'd built up a solid collection of recipes by the time the cable company caught on to our free ride and cut us off. 

Those first few years, I relied heavily on Rachael's cookbooks. On our first anniversary. your dad and I even waited in line for a picture and autograph with Rachael. I was too starstruck to tell her she'd changed my life, which is somewhat dramatic but also true. Although I don't use many of Rachael's recipes anymore, the following recipes will always hold a special place in my heart - and belly - because they were some of the first. 



For your dad and I, the kitchen became our special place. We have never had a fancy kitchen, but we have always had a full kitchen and a delicious time attempting all sorts of culinary feats. 

I hope the same is true for you.

***** 

Pan-Seared Salmon with Citrus Vinegar Glaze and Green Beans

The recipe that started it all. 

  • 4 salmon fillets
  • olive oil for brushing the fillets
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (I have also used chicken broth)
  • 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
  • big splash of orange juice
  • small splash of lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 pound green beans, trimmed
  • orange and lemon rind slices

Preheat a cast-iron skillet over medium-high skillet. *See note below*

Open the wine, and pour yourself and anyone else in the kitchen a glass. Be sure there is 1/2 cup left for the glaze. 

Rinse the salmon under cold water and pat dry.

Brush each fillet with oil, and season with salt and pepper. Cook the salmon until just cooked through, about 3 minutes on each side.

At this point, I pop the skillet into a 350°F oven to finish cooking the fish for a few more minutes as I finish up the glaze and green beans.

While the salmon cooks, bring wine, vinegar, citrus juices, and brown sugar to a boil over high heat in a saucepan. Reduce the glaze for 3-4 minutes, until thickened. Remove from the heat, and stir in a good pitch of pepper.

To another skillet, add the green beans, orange and lemon rinds, and 1/2 inch of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook 3-4 minutes. Drain the beans and season with salt and pepper.

Drizzle the glaze over the salmon and serve the beans.

*Note* If you do not have a cast-iron skillet, any oven-proof skillet will do. However, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity and tell you to buy a cast-iron skillet. It took me ten years to get one, and everything from pancakes, to brussels sprouts, to salmon tastes better cooked in that skillet. What a tragedy I will never get those years back.






Just add glaze. They'll love it. 




Check back next week for another favorite recipe from the early years.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

cold tea & peanut butter crackers


I pulled into the driveway just after 4:00 to pick up Charlotte. For over a year, my dear friend had been on full-day babysitting duty while I was teaching. Two days a week, my one-year-old daughter joined forces with her one-year-old daughter, and despite the cuteness overload, I have no doubt they were a handful together.

I gave a soft knock on the door and let myself in. I could hear murmurs coming from the kitchen, and as I walked past the family room, I noticed a Bible laying open on the coffee table. Next to it was a journal, pen, and mug. Nosiness got the best of me, and I leaned over to peek into the mug. Sure enough, still half full with a sorry looking tea bag floating on top.

I wondered if it was my daughter who caused the abrupt ending to this quiet time.

I knew the frustration of a passage unread, thoughts unwritten, and a drink turned cold.

Bible study looks different when you're the mom of little ones.

*****

A few years ago, I was invited to join a Thursday night ladies' Bible study. As a working mom, my sole evening commitment was unloading three lunch boxes, washing an ungodly amount of dishes, and repacking breakfasts, lunches, and snacks for the following day. I also had a standing date with Netflix and the loveseat. Venturing out on a weeknight really wasn't my jam.

Nevertheless, I signed up, bought my book, and really enjoyed the first week. I completed my homework, and despite the exhaustion and touch of nausea that had slowed me down the past few days, I headed out on a cold, February night for another week of Bible study.

About an hour in, the nausea and overall feeling of yuckiness had increased. Should I excuse myself?  Was I sick? Should I take off work tomorrow?

Then it clicked. What took me so long to put it together?

I stopped at CVS on the way home and sure enough, baby number two was making himself known. He continued to make himself known over the next months by forming a one man mutiny against energy usage,  the smell of Kroger, and food that wasn't a bagel. I skipped that evening commitment of washing dishes and packing meals, and instead headed straight for the loveseat. It was at least four more months before I rejoined the world.

I dropped out of Thursday night Bible study.

I felt guilty so I got up early one morning to work through some of it on my own, but I puked instead. 

Bible study looks different when you're the mom of little ones.

*****

After moving to a new town this summer, we were immediately drawn to Bethel Cincinnati - a church of passion, diversity, and commitment to Biblical truth. In so many wonderful and challenging ways, Bethel is different than any church Stephen or I have attended. One such challenge includes keeping our children in the service with us during the musical worship.

There is great value in singing and dancing alongside your children and allowing them to see a roomful of adults worshiping through music. But let's me honest, containing toddlers in a church service is a very specific kind of torture. My armpits get sweaty just thinking about it.

I want to be clear that not once have I been given a raised eyebrow or disapproving look by a stuffy church goer. In fact, quite the opposite. This beautiful body of Christ is gracious and welcoming - playing peek-a-boo with my children and easing my embarrassment with a wink and a smile when my darlings are out of sorts.

Charlotte has adjusted to this time, and is willing to be held or sit and listen. Whew.

Andrew has maneuvered under chairs and tables at an alarming speed. Eeks.

This leaves me with two options - get those elbows to the ground, grab his ankles and pull, or dangle snacks to lure him back. 

The power of Cheerios; it's a beautiful thing. All the mamas out there say, "Amen!"

The other week we were about thirty minutes into the service, and I could tell Andrew was done. We were reaching a rather climatic part of a song, a moment where you can feel the presence and passion of the Holy Spirit. The worship team had led us to repeat powerful descriptors of our Jesus.

"Holy, holy, holy. Mighty, mighty, mighty. Worthy, worthy, worthy."

Everyone was engaging with the Lord in personal ways - some were dancing, some were lifting their hands, some standing in silence, and some on their knees.

I, on the other hand, was seated with a package of peanut butter crackers squeezed between my knees, one hand catching crumbs from my son's mouth, the other hand lifted to Jesus as I repeatedly sang out the word "Holy, holy, holy."

"When do I go to my class?" whispered Charlotte.

"Soon."

Holy, holy, holy. The band continued.

"Mo cack pees?" asked Andrew with bulging cheeks.

"Finish the ones in your mouth first." Oh the crumbs.

Mighty, mighty, mighty. The instruments dropped out as voices sang.

I fell to my knees - not in reverent submission but because Andrew had knocked over water that was spreading toward the row in front of us. I wiped up the mess, and slowly pull out another cracker, waiting for him to swallow round one. You can't rush the snacks; they have to last at least five minutes.

"Mom, is this the last song?"

"I'm not sure, Charlotte."

Worthy, worthy, worthy.

Sunday morning looks different when you're the mom of little ones.

*****

Both of our children were handed over to church nursery workers since they were old enough to lift their heads. The sign on the nursery door said "three to eighteen months," but I snuck them in at two months, and thankfully, they were content to play and sing and eat piles of Goldfish crackers in my absence. 

This beautiful routine took a nosedive as we began attending Bethel Cincinnati this summer. After surviving the first half of the service (see above), I was eager for the pastor to pray over our children and send them to their own rooms. 

It might have been his age or the new church or the whole moving to a new town thing - most likely a combination of all - but when it came time to plop Andrew in the arms of a sweet nursery worker, he was not having it. 

"Give him ten minutes. He'll be fine," I said as I hurried out of sight, his screams echoing down the hallway. 

About ten minutes later, a nursery volunteer's head popped into the service, made eye contact with me, and gave an apologetic look. I hurried to the nursery to find Andrew, red-faced and covered in snot.

I scooped him up and rambled on about how he'd been in a church nursery since birth, and I'd never been called out of the service before. I'm pretty sure I even used the phrase "rock star in the nursery." Ugh. I was so embarrassed. No one wants to be the mom of the clingy, screaming child. 

And because his hysteria resulted in a successful rescue from mom, he pulled the same stunt next week - and the week after that, and the week after that. 

Stephen and I spent the next two months rotating nursery duty, leaving the other responsible for a sermon synopsis on the drive home.

Sunday morning looks different when you're the mom of little ones.


*****

I imagine these are scenes the Lord knows well - an attempted quiet moment in His Word interrupted by nap time gone wrong, an expectant mom whose spiritual disciplines are replaced with cries of exhaustion and sickness, a juggling act in the middle of church, and an embarrassed mom sneaking out the back door ten minutes into the sermon, again.

But I also imagine the Lord filled with compassion and a good sense of humor for the moms of little ones who keep seeking Him, clinging to Him with one hand and doling out peanut butter crackers with the other hand.

God is not interested in my sacrifices. It is not about my completed Bible studies or solemn worship. It is not about diligent sermon notes or guilt Satan wants to pour on me. It is about grace, and this rings louder when you're the mom of little ones.
 


"For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace."
John 1:16