life in balance

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Year in Photos

Wow, what a year. He got his doctorate; I quit my job; we went to Paris, Iceland and the UK together and I travelled to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, NYC and Tennessee alone, as well as an earth-shifting trip back to Austin. Following Susannah Conway’s lead, I wanted to put together a year in photos post – twelve photos, one for each month. Turns out it’s nigh impossible to choose 12 photos for a year this full. I put the ones that made the cut into collages here for the sake of your scrolling fingers.

January through April. Struggling with the loss of my aunt, challenged by my workload, finding solace in the company of some soul sisters.
May and June. He graduates with his PhD, a year ahead of schedule. A challenging time at Squam as I struggle with what’s ahead. I take him to Europe to celebrate all we’ve been through in the last seven years together.
September. That lake. Healing magic.
September through November. Loving souls. Embroidery head-banging sessions. The mother tree. The best dinner party I’ve ever attended. Wild insomnia.
November through December. The wheel keeps on turning and the city keeps changing. Knitting the damage back together. Being at home – at home.

Many of the women I know have been inspired by this exercise – I’d encourage all of you to try it – it is amazing the ground we cover in a year. If you do post your own year in photos I would love to see it – please do share in the comments! Should you want to see the full images from my set and some longer-winded accompanying stories, click over here to my Flickr set, which includes the full size images as well as a couple of bonus shots.


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On the Road: Austin, or an elegy for my breakfast


Every year since we’ve been married, we’ve come back to Austin. Not because we’re feeling any sort of deep-seated call to go, but just out of simple nostalgia. Austin as it was when I lived there was the cradle of my civilization – a place I came into totally unencumbered. I remember how wild it felt when I arrived – to be totally free, thousands of futures to choose or not choose; each moment felt so important and sharp-edged and cavernous.


I don’t say I don’t still feel fresh-made these days; the world is so full of beauty and my eyes are so newly formed. It’s enough to make a person go positively bacchic with gratitude, and I often do lose myself and lose the weight of my history in joy at all the good fortune I’ve been given. But in the ten years since I’ve left home, none of the sea changes and none of the earthquakes have felt so full and rich as that first one, that move to Austin. Like first falling in love, your first adult life is like none of the lives that follow. Balanced up in the balcony of the Paramount, in a plush velvet seat, watching Sufjan Stevens forget what city he was in, in a crowd of strangers with their gorgeous, unknown lives. Sitting alone and unfamiliar inside this shell that had seen a hundred years of performances, thousands of bodies before mine. The history of it and the lack of history of me. The exhilaration of my first real drive alone through the city; in fact, as I learned to drive late and still really hate it, one of my first real drives alone anywhere. How detached I felt from the graduate program at the University of Austin that had brought me to the city until I sat in the Harry Ransom Center holding an autographed volume of Robert Frost from Virginia Woolf’s personal library in my hands. So far from my family and so friendless – no ties of love binding me to any place at any time. That first declaration of independence has a newness, a shine, a violent richness to it that is simply untwinnable and I love to revisit that moment in time through place. And so every year we go to Austin.


Every year before this one, I’ve been carrying baggage of some sort; I’ve never known what it was like to be in the city without feeling at least a modicum of angst over something or other. I really excel at angst, though I do try my hardest not to inflict it on others. But now that I’m standing at the end of a big life cycle, what I’m feeling isn’t angst, it’s this soul-rocking joy and lightness. It was so strange to be in the city and feel so light and free. Just as I’m at the end of a cycle, though, the city was as well, and I found that a lot of things that felt fundamental to my experience of Austin were shifting. And do y’all know which made me feel the most shaken? This is embarrassing to admit, but stick with me, I will explain myself. Kerbey Lane has changed their menu. My breakfast of seven years? Gone, baby, gone.

Of course, the problem isn’t truly that the meal itself is off the menu; the problem is that my place is gone and the breakfast was the last piece of the puzzle still in the box. When I lived in Austin, I went to the Kerbey Lane on South Lamar, and after I left the city, they moved to a new location. Everyone who actually lives in Austin has gotten over this ages ago, I am sure, but I’m still mourning the place I used to love. It had this absolutely horrid tiny parking lot, with two spots in front that were at peak times parallel parking nightmares for a crap driver like me – but in the off hours they were easy to get into. I tell you, there were so many times when I’d pull into that lot and whatever larger existential issue I was dealing with would narrow like a pinhole. All my angst would focus itself on the status of those parking spaces. Such a thrill of victory every time I could just glide right into the space. Such nervous tension when I had to navigate instead the tight spaces at the side lot. I’ve always been fond of hiding from my big problems within smaller problems. It’s so much easier to be upset over the parking space than it is to acknowledge how lost we are. Those little problems, sure, sometimes they obstruct us. But sometimes they serve us. Sometimes while you’re hiding inside of them you’re growing strong. It’s just not the same parking your car in an old Blockbuster lot, man.

And then the inside – quiet wood furniture everywhere and the dark of early morning pressing in against the big windows – that one guy nursing his coffee at the bar and the same old booth with the ripped seat held together with a strip of duct tape. Same waiter, who still remembered me on our first trip back to the city, even though I had been gone for a year. I never sent down roots in Austin so my people in the city are like this, waiters whose names I don’t know, the ticket attendant at the Paramount in the summer, and so forth. I’ve never seen that waiter at the new location, with its neon furniture and windows that do nothing to keep out the glare from a series of glowing chain-store marquees. No darkness, no awful little parking lot that always made you work for it if you showed up after 5am. And now, no breakfast.


I eventually left Austin to marry my then-boyfriend and go home with him to DC, and in my last week in the city, I went to that old Kerbey location every morning before work, and I ate my usual and I processed everything that was happening around me. I had heard a lot of fear and worry over our plans from both of our families. I was moving during one of the worst phases of the recession, with ten thousand dollars in graduate school debt on my back. I had no job prospects in DC and would be giving up a robust and supportive professional network in Austin for a blank slate in a city whose rents average four times what I paid for my place in Austin. I knew it would be on me to support us and I worried that I was guessing wrong about the state of the job market in DC. And on top of the worries professional, I was afraid to marry my husband. I’ve never felt like I was made to be somebody’s wife. When we got together, I told him I was a flight risk. Matter of fact but true: I like to run. I told him not to get too serious about me. But we got serious. He was my right hand, my right brain, my whole world. In the end, I simply wanted to be with him, and I had to trust that I could be steady enough to make him happy. So I gave notice. I felt my fear. I drove to Kerbey every morning in the dark before the city was awake and I ate my breakfast and tried to have faith.

That place that held me is gone now. Right? Momentarily traumatic. But then I started to see the cycle in it – that just as I was transforming, the city was transforming, and that I could still be at ease and at home if I worked with that cycle instead of against it. I think the truth of it, deep down, really is that we all spin around the cycle together, and that whole is beautiful when you let yourself see it.


So I consoled myself with the living city and I reminded myself that there’s hope in change. I went to End of an Ear, where I used to buy records when I lived in the city, and I went to South Congress Books, which opened after I left and which I first discovered two trips back, and I went to the Herb Bar for the first time. Building a chain of places that spanned the years I’d been gone, burrowing down through the strata of businesses coming and going. Giving love to the city for what it is and not just what it is to me. South Congress Books is an amazing place – they’re very selective about what they take in and they have beautiful used books, books that qualify as art, really. At the Herb Bar I was able to find borage and mullein and a number of other dried herbs I can’t get at home to stock my herbalist’s pantry; the place is an Austin institution with such kind and helpful staff.


To replace my insomniac breakfast-at-all-hours, now departed, I went to the Bouldin Street Cafe for the first time and wandered on foot down Mary Street in the pitch-dark, then returned over and over for a grilled cheese with jalapenos and ginger miso dressing on the side. Building a new framework around south Austin, even embracing places I used to dislike. Adoring an expensive Ciro-flex camera at Off the Wall, stocking up on cobalt blue apothecary bottles at Uncommon Objects. Uncommon Objects used to be one of my big ho-hum places on South Congress, but perhaps I wasn’t looking closely enough before – I now find it one of the most intriguing antique shops I’ve been in. The organization has a curiosity shop feel, an artistry to the way the stock is displayed that soothes some aspect of my aesthetic sensibility. And I found a silver cream pitcher, etched with flowers, so beautiful that I have not been able to bring myself to put it away for a month. I walked across the bridge over Town Lake in the early morning, in out-of-character 30 degree weather, in an inadequate jersey cotton hoodie, to try out an incredible coffee place downtown. And finally – perhaps my favorite thing of all – he and I went to my favorite Austin market and picked up twenty pounds of extremely cheap tomatillos to bring home to make salsa. He really wants to begin canning while actually on vacation, but this time we took all four pounds on the plane with us; they completely filled a carry-on suitcase all by themselves. The trip as a whole was an incredibly healing exercise, the soul-work of connecting the past to the present and future.


And so now I’m done travelling for just a bit. Perhaps three months; the next workshop I have my eye on is in March, though there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to attend it, just as there’s no guarantee I won’t take flight sooner. But right now I’m settling in at home. I haven’t talked much in this space about my writing, but I have been working – adjusting – slowly shifting things into focus. I’m envious of any writer who can work without the work taking over their day-to-day schedule; I am not that person. My fiction writing takes everything and it’s quite an adjustment getting used to its greed. So now I’m going to take some space – to breathe and absorb all the momentous changes, all the beauty that’s rocked through my life this year. Has anyone else had quite the transition year this year? I truly do tend to believe that many of us – cities and people – go through these things together.

Final note: If you’re writing, if you’re reflecting as we wrap the year up, may I gently nudge you towards Susannah Conway’s Unravelling workbook? I’ll be filling mine out on New Year’s Eve as I did last year, though of course you can work on it over the course of a few days as many other people do.

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Guest Post at Lehman’s


Just popping in (during another bout of insomnia – fun – my brain is very active at night these days) to alert you all to a guest post I wrote recently for Lehman’s Country Life blog, one of the sponsors of the Kinfolk event I attended in Virginia this past September. Somehow I missed the post launching during my biscuit-baking frenzy! Head on over and check out the recipe for apple maple butter, cooked with my spoils from the NYC Greenmarket.


On the Road: Kinfolk and Chattanooga


I’m just back from my latest round of travelling – our annual Austin trip and a stop in Chattanooga by myself for a Kinfolk gathering on herbal infusions. I had been wanting to see Chattanooga since I started reading Local Milk back in July, before I had given notice. Beth’s writing about place, moody and atmospheric and gothic, created this vivid picture of Chattanooga in my mind and I was eager to see the city for myself. The time was never quite right to add the trip to the schedule after I gave notice, but then the Kinfolk gathering cropped up in just the perfect place for me to swing by on the way down to Texas. As y’all know, I’ve been interested in herbal infusions for a while, and I thought it would be fun to explore the idea from a culinary perspective, with a host who also believes in the medicinal properties of herbs. So I rerouted my trip to Austin (about which more next time) to include a brief stop in Chattanooga for the workshop and a little exploration of the city.


I flew into Chattanooga on Friday night and had some time to explore just a little before and after the event. I didn’t rent a car, which was kind of a strange decision in retrospect. Chattanooga’s more of a car city than many of the places I’ve been lately. I actually felt like it was more eccentric taking a taxi there than it was in the Shetland Islands. But the good thing about seeing a city on foot is that you really see everything. Over these past few months I’ve been travelling, it’s been my challenge to send deep roots down as quickly as I can, then rip them up violently and move onto the next place. It’s an exercise in loving and knowing a place, not just seeing it, and I find it’s easier to sink in on your feet than it is behind the wheel of a car.


I stayed at the Crash Pad, a hostel that’s been designed to be as environmentally friendly as possible. Some of you will know that staying in a hostel was a wild departure for me, miss four-star hotel, but I loved it. The design is really thought-provoking and the location was great. On Saturday I had coffee and some writing time at Mean Mug Coffee nearby. Great atmosphere, and they brew and sell Velo coffee, which I was eager to try. The new single-origin blend from Velo has a strong chocolate note to my taste buds, so I’m going to brew it for my Christmas morning white chocolate coffee from Home Made Winter. Possibly in the jadeite coffee mugs I got at the Knitting Mill. I had been going back and forth about whether the weekend was long enough to justify going over to the north shore, but I went for it and I’m glad I did. I could have stayed in there a lot longer than I did; it’s a really fun antique store to browse and the place is huge. I also swung by Fredonia, a women’s clothing and accessories shop. Okay, perhaps I swung by Fredonia several times. Perhaps I fell in love with Fredonia and went in three times in two days. Yes, that happened. Couldn’t help myself. They carry a lot of really unusual pieces and everything is so well-priced. Plus I had an awesome conversation with the woman behind the counter about polaroid film photography. Before I went to Chattanooga I picked up a box of six possibly broken land cameras from a Methodist preacher, so the subject was on my mind while I was photographing the shop, though I was neither thorough nor particularly focused in what I had to say about it.


And after the workshop, on my way out of town, I made one last stop – The Farmer’s Daughter for a latte from Copacetic Coffee and a breakfast – delicious granola and yogurt and my very first sorghum experience. Sorghum, where have you been all my life? The Farmer’s Daughter places a lot of importance on fresh, sustainably produced ingredients from local farmers and producers and it shows in the food. Easily the best restaurant I ate at while in Chattanooga. Copacetic also brews Velo in addition to beans from other roasters such as Crema in Nashville. From what I gather, the partnership between the Farmer’s Daughter and Copacetic was engineered so that people in search of good coffee could also have good food, and people in search of good food wouldn’t have to settle for mediocre run-of-the-mill coffee. The idea made reality is basically the perfect place to have breakfast; left me wishing I wasn’t screwing around with taxi shenanigans so I could fully relax. Next time with a rental car! I could not get over how friendly and welcoming everyone in Chattanooga was. I love where I live, but we’ve got a little more ‘mind yo bizness’ in the water up here and a lot less ‘Oh, you want to go to the Knitting Mill? Honey, let me tell you exactly what you need to do….’. I loved every minute of it.


The event was held at a private home in the Loveman building in downtown Chattanooga, and the space was beautiful, filled with light and gorgeous high ceilings and a fabulous bookshelf. I hope I’m not the only one who walks into a home and immediately checks out the owner’s bookshelves. We started off the event with the workshop; our hosts supplied us with two glass amber jars and a Weck jar, and we got to choose between salt, sugar, olive oil and bourbon to infuse. There was an abundance of herbs spread out down the length of the table, including some for blending our own teas. For my jar and bottles, I chose sugar, infused with rose, hibiscus and a tiny bit of honeysuckle, olive oil, infused with chipotle chiles and rosemary, and bourbon, infused with cinnamon, nutmeg and sage. I really love the bourbon – it’s an interesting, weird-in-a-good-way flavor. I think it needs a cocktail – possibly with spiceberry bitters? We shall see. For the tea I blended meadowsweet and valerian, for anxiety, with some honeysuckle – this last being a totally intuitive decision on my part. When I took my class with Holly back at Squam, she told us that sometimes you’ll have an intuitive call to use a particular herb, and when that happens, roll with it – you never know what the plant is telling you. And so I did. I just finished my tulsi/rose tea, so this will be the next blend I drink for emotional health. Honestly, for me, I find that the most effective herbal remedy for anxiety is spritzing, either with my Lotus Wei blends or my homemade blend. My emotions just seem to be more scent-triggered than taste-triggered – but blending teas is fun for me, tea geek that I am. The workshop in general was just perfect – enough guidance to get ideas flowing, and free enough that our intuition had a place in the process.


I confess I was nervous to be attending the event on my own. Kinfolk events can skew female, and I don’t have a whole lot of experience socializing with other women anymore. I’ve lived for my career these past seven years, and in those seven years I had one female colleague, and I only worked with her for nine months. Since I quit, it’s been very difficult for me to re-learn how to have authentic, soulful conversations with other women; I feel like I’m often saying the wrong thing, shy and awkward and bumbling. But as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The people who attended the event were incredible; openhearted and creative and brave, honest and true. Their openness called to me and made it so much easier to be open myself. Conversation felt effortless. It truly was one of those magic evenings; I don’t know about anyone else, but for me it was healing. A lot of credit goes to our hostesses, Beth, Hannah, Rebekka and Sarah, who did a great job of making sure everyone felt included in the conversation and part of the gathering. Completing the magic, we were sent home with satsuma, herbs de provence and fennel salt, saffron and lavender honey and a chai tea bag, all handmade, as well as some lovely gifts from our event sponsors – but my favorite part was the handmade goods. The salt in particular is killer – I’ve been making everyone who comes by my place try a little.


For once, I was so invested in hanging out with everyone that I barely got my camera out of my bag. I took some shots early on and then thought, “No, I’m not feeling the camera, I want to be fully present for this.” So forgive my fuzzy cell phone shots and just know, I wasn’t there to take photos, I was just there to be. Also unusual for me! Usually I’m more the “hide behind the lens” type. And can I just say Beth’s cooking is sublime. Check that menu out up at the top of this post. Incredible. I think I need to balls up and try to make lavender creme fraiche at home; Beth gave us a little pep talk about how easy it is, and I just need to get over my fear of eating dairy that’s been set out and just. do. it. Also exciting? One of the hostesses was Rebekka Seale of the Camellia Fiber Company, a new yarn company that you all need, yes, need, to check out. She’s one of the best semi-solid indie dyers I have ever seen, especially when you factor in that she works exclusively with natural dyes. We got a chance to have some fun shop talk about the yarn business after dinner. Y’all know I never pass up a chance to talk yarn! Hopefully I’ll have more on the company for you in 2014, but for now, seriously go look at the colorways. She also dyed the napkins you see in all our place settings; I’m saving part of my December budget for a set of napkins from her shop. They are just too gorgeous.

Place setting at the Kinfolk dinner

So in short, the whole experience was just absolutely magical. Camille once told me that if you wanted to travel, you had to get out there and make it happen, and I’ve been reflecting this past week on how true that is. Last year I never would’ve gone to the trouble to re-route my travel plans for a beautiful dinner, and I would have missed out on this experience. I’m so grateful that after so many years of being tentative and saying no, I’ve finally built this life for myself where it’s okay to say yes to beauty even in small things. And as we approach the new year I’m going to focus on all the doors I can open for myself in 2014. The future is coming; everything is possible.

Final notes: I’ve come across some blog posts from other attendees and wanted to share their experiences as well. I met Marissa as I was walking into the Loveman building; she’s such a sweetheart (and makes lovely jewelry!). Emily also wrote a post about the event with some gorgeous photos. I’ve been following her on Instagram since the gathering and can I just say her self-portraiture is inspired? Magazine-worthy. There are also posts out there from our hosts and sponsors: Local Milk’s includes a shot of yours truly, which I love though I’m making a crazy face, because I’m clearly having a blast. The recipe for one of our cocktails is also up over at West Elm’s blog (they sponsored the event and provided a lot of the goods you’ll see in everyone’s photos). And Rebekka also has a post up on her blog about the event. Let me know in the comments if you have posted something I missed and I’ll add it to the round-up!

Also, very important: Same disclaimer as always when I talk about herbalism: herbal remedies are not recognized by the FDA as medicines and can’t be guaranteed to treat any particular illness or injury. The information provided here shouldn’t be substituted for consultation with a physician or other licensed medical professional.