February 15, 2013

When Senses Slide Wide Open

Let me first set the mood: the sky is gray and the air is cold. Not bitterly so, but you’d be wise to plunge your hands into your pocket as you walk the cobblestone streets in search of a coffee shop. Even before noon, restaurants and cafes, no matter their caliber, have candles burning in the windows.

Be careful when you cross the street. There is a wide bike line between cars and pedestrians on almost every street. It is filled with stylish women wearing versions of a similar outfit: flat black ankle boots, slim trousers, a shapeless, voluminous, vaguely arty coat, and a huge, nubby knit scarf looped and framing a wide, pink-cheeked, barely made-up face. Her hair is in a messy-cool top-knot. She might be toting a yoga mat or a child. I kept thinking I saw Michelle Williams.

You hustle across the street and settle into a coffee shop just slightly below street-level. On each table are small candles sitting next to little pots of herbs or a few fresh flowers. The music is good, and you drink a cappuccino and eat thick, rich yogurt out of a Duralex glass topped with oats and chopped apple. Aside from the sense in the back of your mind of a train that will carry you out of town to a castle or a cathedral or a viking ship, you feel you have all time in the world.

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February 8, 2013

Grounding, Sure-Footed, and Simple

We touched home at JFK on Sunday night, and I could already feel a cold creeping up. It reminded me of stormy fights that brew just when it’s time to say goodbye; at least getting sick would make it easier to leave beautiful and charming Copenhagen. Which I want to tell you all about in potentially florid detail–all those vacation breakthroughs and epiphanies and a sense of wide-eyed awakeness. Right now I’m still sorting through them and testing them against the light of real, everyday life.

I am also blowing my nose into oblivion. But I was enormously grateful to open the freezer and find I had the foresight to freeze a bit of this soup before our trip. It has bunches and bunches of greens in it, dill and a lively squeeze of lemon. It’s soup at its best: filled with the kind of clean, bright flavors you long for in the dark of winter or after too much indulgence or when you are sniffling endlessly. It feels nourishing, as if just breathing its lightly-scented steam will put you right again. It’s the kind of food we need when we’ve had major upheaval: it’s grounding, sure-footed, and simple. It’s what I was craving before I set off on what I called my Life Design Inspiration Trip, and what I’m wanting even more now that I’m home.

For all of you with mid-winter colds, heartaches, or who are just experiencing the dull, panging ennui that February so often brings on–this one’s for you.

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January 21, 2013

Danish Dreams, Coming True

At some point in the last several years, my enchantment with Paris was supplanted by a fascination with Scandinavia. Paris will always be Paris, of course, but these cold, cozy countries to the north captured my imagination in a new way. How could a place so cloaked in long winter darkness be home to the happiest people on earth? The part of me that can’t stop thinking about how where we live affects how we live couldn’t get Scandinavia out of my mind.

The day I stumbled across Alex‘s blog, Hygge House, was like finding a door in the back of a wardrobe that leads to an enchanted country whose language has a single word that encapsulates so much of what I care about:

The Danish word hygge (hue-gah) is a feeling or mood that comes from taking genuine pleasure in making ordinary everyday things simply extraordinary; whether it’s using real lights on a Christmas tree or breaking out the good wine when friends come over.

It’s about owning things you only truly love or that inspire, being present in yourself and your life, putting effort into your home without being Martha Stewart or buying a bed in a bag. It’s also about being conscious and authentic from home to work to friends to celebrations and making all events {no matter how big or small, mundane or exciting} matter.

Words like cosiness, security, familiarity, comfort, reassurance, fellowship, simpleness and living well are often used to describe the idea of Hygge. Some refer to Hygge as the Art of Creating Intimacy (with yourself, friends and home). Technology and modern day busy-ness has removed so many of us from ourselves, our homes and ordinary tasks, making them feel as though these things are hard to do, have no importance or are too time-consuming.

Danes, however, only like to do things that are fun, nourish the soul and are familiar so they find ways to incorporate them into their daily life. By creating simple rituals without effort {such as brewing real tea with a little china cup every evening to stopping at the farmers market every week to buy flowers} the Danes see both the domestic and personal life as an art form and not every drudgery to get away from.

When I found the complete set of the Time-Life Food Series in an Upper East Side church basement, I fell in love with the volume on the Cooking of Scandinavia. The author tells the story of exceedingly welcoming Danes who go out of their way to put a dinner on for him and his wife.

The dinner was a triumph of what the Danes called hygge, a word that connotes a sense of well-being, of visceral and mental comfort when the world has been reduced to a dining-room size and the curtains have been drawn against the night. It is an atmostphere that all Danish hostesses try to create for their guests, an extra something to go with the food and to which the food itself contributes. More candles must be burned per capita, more flowers bought in their pursuit of this hospitable aura in Denmark than in any other country in the world. [...] One of their sayings puts the matter this way: “First flowers on the table; then food.”

And what of the food in Scandinavia?

It is many things: fish, of course, but pork and poultry as well; beets, potatoes, cucumbers; dill, parsley and horseradish; apples and almonds; cream and that golden product of cream, butter. The cooking is pure, and it is simple. Foods taste of themselves in the North: they smack of the sea, or a fresh-water lake, or even the earth. And some, like the garnet lingonberry or the sand-colored mushroom, are not only born of the forest, but bring a breath of pines or birches to to the table with them.

I read the book On My Swedish Island, asked for a pair of snow shoes for Christmas, and started visiting the sauna at the YMCA more regularly.

I started looking at design blogs, longing for pale wood floors, candles, and sheepskin rugs. I loved these rooms that were clean, simple, and cheerfully whimsical, all at once. I pinned like crazy.

I can’t quite explain why this region so captures my imagination. It has something to do with the clear winter light that reminds me of Minnesota, an unafraid embrace of winter (“there is no bad weather, only bad clothing”), the fresh outdoorsiness, the clean-flavored, simple food. It all feels wholesome to me. And when I imagine that life in the woods where I am stirring a pot of stew and growing geraniums in the windows, that is how it feels: soul-nourishing, in the most basic and elemental kind of way. It feels like an important connection, even if it’s one I’ve completely dreamed up.

Dreams are coming true this Friday night when we board a plane to Copenhagen. I am bringing an extra empty suitcase and a fully-charged camera battery. I’m thinking of this as Life Design Inspiration Trip: I want to photograph everything that delights my eye, buy candlesticks and platters and blankets, and come home filled with ideas to make my own life more hygge.  I am so excited I am about to burst! Please, if you have suggestions––restaurants, hidden gems, favorite museums, day trips, etc––I am all ears! And if you are there and want to meet up, even better!

January 14, 2013

Wisdom Anywhere

When the list of bite-sized wisdom below reached my email inbox last week, the authors age had been inaccurately advanced from 50 to 90. Advice from a 90-year-old would be more quaint and compelling in a way, but alas, it just isn’t so. Nothing’s lost. A 50-year-old can be as wise as the sages (as no doubt many of you already know):

Regina Brett’s 45 life lessons and 5 to grow on

To celebrate growing older, I once wrote the 45 lessons life taught me.

It is the most-requested column I’ve ever written. My odometer rolls over to 50 this week, so here’s an update:

1. Life isn’t fair, but it’s still good.

2. When in doubt, just take the next small step.

3. Life is too short to waste time hating anyone.

4. Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

5. Pay off your credit cards every month.

6. You don’t have to win every argument. Agree to disagree.

7. Cry with someone. It’s more healing than crying alone.

8. It’s OK to get angry with God. He can take it.

9. Save for retirement starting with your first paycheck.

10. When it comes to chocolate, resistance is futile.

11. Make peace with your past so it won’t screw up the present.

12. It’s OK to let your children see you cry.

13. Don’t compare your life to others’. You have no idea what their journey is all about.

14. If a relationship has to be a secret, you shouldn’t be in it.

15. Everything can change in the blink of an eye. But don’t worry; God never blinks.

16. Life is too short for long pity parties. Get busy living, or get busy dying.

17. You can get through anything if you stay put in today.

18. A writer writes. If you want to be a writer, write.

19. It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. But the second one is up to you and no one else.

20. When it comes to going after what you love in life, don’t take no for an answer.

21. Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don’t save it for a special occasion. Today is special.

22. Overprepare, then go with the flow.

23. Be eccentric now. Don’t wait for old age to wear purple.

24. The most important sex organ is the brain.

25. No one is in charge of your happiness except you.

26. Frame every so-called disaster with these words: “In five years, will this matter?”

27. Always choose life.

28. Forgive everyone everything.

29. What other people think of you is none of your business.

30. Time heals almost everything. Give time time.

31. However good or bad a situation is, it will change.

32. Your job won’t take care of you when you are sick. Your friends will. Stay in touch.

33. Believe in miracles.

34. God loves you because of who God is, not because of anything you did or didn’t do.

35. Whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.

36. Growing old beats the alternative – dying young.

37. Your children get only one childhood. Make it memorable.

38. Read the Psalms. They cover every human emotion.

39. Get outside every day. Miracles are waiting everywhere.

40. If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.

41. Don’t audit life. Show up and make the most of it now.

42. Get rid of anything that isn’t useful, beautiful or joyful.

43. All that truly matters in the end is that you loved.

44. Envy is a waste of time. You already have all you need.

45. The best is yet to come.

46. No matter how you feel, get up, dress up and show up.

47. Take a deep breath. It calms the mind.

48. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

49. Yield.

50. Life isn’t tied with a bow, but it’s still a gift.

Originally published in The Plain Dealer on Sunday, May 28, 2006

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Taking food and drink is a great enjoyment for healthy people, and those who do not enjoy eating seldom have much capacity for enjoyment of any sort.
- Charles W. Eliot