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Posts Tagged ‘peace’

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Vintage Pyrex bowls.

Goodness, this was a lousy week.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut on Friday I was overwhelmed, disheartened and in need of some peace—proper peace, the kind that soaks into the bones. The song ‘Where Are You, Christmas?’ has never been a favorite of mine, but I have to admit that lately I have been wondering the same thing. Here it was the middle of December, and I should have been happily knee-deep in the fun and joy of Christmastime. Instead, stress seemed to have formed a Plexiglas case around me, isolating me from the season I love so much, allowing me to see it but not feel it. It was as if I was watching it all on television.

By Wednesday I was stretched to maximum capacity and utterly exhausted. I crossed everything off my list for the afternoon, drove to the antique district in Red Bank and walked into the red wooden shop at Front Street and Bridge. My blood pressure went down to a simmer as soon as I opened the door of the old building, a mighty garage sale on two floors. It’s a good place to step out of yourself, out of the present, into what (at least) feels like a warmer time. The place even has a calming aroma; the mix of wood, vintage clothes, books and housewares all together in one spot is what I imagine 1958 or thereabouts smelled like.

This antiques shop relaxes me because the stuff within is not so much precious as homey. There are the odd mahogany end tables and gilded mirrors, but there are far more simple things, ones that waft good memories around me like a May wind. I love seeing the type of 1960s porcelain figurines my aunt used to display on her dresser, the ones of ladies with updos, wearing broad sweeps of black liner on their upper eyelids and real dangling earrings. I love seeing the same miniature Madame Alexander dolls I used to collect, and the kind of metal lunchbox my sister used to carry to school.

The vintage kitchen stuff soothes me most of all. The nooks and alcoves piled floor to ceiling with kitchenware are quiet places where you can step in and feel enveloped by women, long-gone, who imprinted themselves on the worn goods they left behind. Here the potato masher and wooden spoons with well-used handles, there the scratched ceramic bowl in which of hundreds of loaves of bread rose. Corningware dishes that saw countless Thursday night meatloaves, birthday-dinner chicken fricassees, heaps of peas from a carefully tended garden. Within these humble, common possessions were the spirits of generations of women who worked their whole lives to keep their families well fed and protected. I felt that spirit, decades later, and felt the safety they provided transfer to me.

Depression glasses and plates are stacked by color, and they make muted rainbows on the shadowy parts of the shelves. Utensils are in spatterware buckets and inside drawers of wooden hutches. The place is a mishmosh, granted; but there IS order, there IS a layout, and I found that comforting, too. What Holly Golightly appreciated about Tiffany, I appreciate here.

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I liked these as a kid, but my mom wouldn’t let us get them because she heard a rumor that they contained lead. Was that true?

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Jadeite vases, coffee cups and bowls.

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Rolling pins.

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Enamelware soup ladle, made to accommodate a deep stock pot.

Christmas decorations are all around the shop, too, most from 1960 and earlier. I loved peering into the cabinets full of candle choirboys, never lit so they would always stay perfect, and grinning Santas. My mom has Christmas things she loves putting on windowsills every year, and so do I. I imagined the sweet-faced angel below being someone’s mom’s favorite. And once again I felt enveloped and safe, even though it was through an image of someone I had never met, from a time before my time. It didn’t matter that it didn’t make sense on paper; it worked.

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Shiny Brite tree ornaments.

Many years ago I was at this very shop and fell in love with a tiny bottle brush Christmas tree. I came back a couple of days later to buy it and it was gone. Amazing how the loss of something that cost three dollars could have made my heart sink like it did, but it did.

On Wednesday I turned a corner and saw another bottle brush tree. At just two inches, it was tinier and even cuter than the one I lost all of those years ago. Three and change. Done.

I stayed for an hour and left the shop feeling much looser and calmer. Yes, the rest of my week got hairy from time to time, and I’m sure it will again. But I have my little bitty tree right here on my desk, and it helps to remind me of the joy and peace this season is supposed to have.

I’m not sure I believe in sweeping generalizations like great joy is all around us, if only we reach out and grab it. Would that it were. At times like this it seems even more implausible, and that’s coming from a pretty enthusiastic optimist. But I don’t think that’s how it works.

Instead, I think we should seek out any bright little glimmers of joy we can find. Those are all around us, and those we should grab. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmastime or any other time of year. Hang on to them and let them sink into your bones. They’ll fortify you. When necessary—before it’s necessary, really—I recommend taking a day, or an afternoon, or even an hour, to play hooky from the world.

And I figured this out: Maybe stress is best diffused just by seeking out anything or anyone that can help us to feel safe. Maybe that’s where peace comes from, too.

I hope you figure out a way to find it—all year long but especially now.

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A week or so ago I started feeling overwhelmed—by everything, by nothing. All of the details of my life swarmed up and around me and my concentration was like a hummingbird’s: I went from place to place and from thought to thought but couldn’t seem to finish anything. I wasn’t really cooking, either. I kept a bunch of elements—cheese, wraps, vegetables, yogurt—in the refrigerator, but there wasn’t anything prepared, no go-to meals ready for when I was starving at 12:15pm. Each day on my calendar had a list attached of stuff to do, but I still felt as though time was getting away from me, that I wasn’t spending it wisely. And worst of all, I felt like there wasn’t anything I could do about it because I couldn’t settle on one thought for long enough to accomplish anything. It was frustrating to say the least.

And yet…amid all of this chaos, quiet, insistent thoughts nudged me from time to time. They felt like life preservers, ways I could pull myself out of this anxiety. I didn’t know if they really were, because they sounded so ordinary.

I want to bake bread again.

I want the house to feel cleaner.

I want to rest.

One afternoon I decided to find out if these thoughts had any merit. I cancelled everything on my to-do list, and instead I would clean and cook. As I took out the vacuum, I felt a bit of serenity bloom in my chest, sort of wrapping itself around the stress and neutralizing it. That night I made banana bread for my breakfast so I could have a proper breakfast all week. Chopped up a leftover dark chocolate bar into the batter just for fun. As it baked it smelled peaceful—really it did. Homey. And I made enough zucchini cakes to last me the week.

They’re so simple that they’re hardly a recipe: The day before you want to eat them, take a bunch of zucchini, however much you want, green, yellow or both. Wash well of grit (especially if you get them from a farm or a farmers market). Chop off the ends, slice the zucchini into wedges into your Cuisinart, and blitz. Turn the whole thing out into a strainer (or if you have a ton, into a colander set over a bowl). Put it into the fridge to drain. You want it to be pretty dry.

The next day, take it out and add chopped onion, an egg or two, salt and pepper, and a crumbly cheese like feta or ricotta salata. Stir it all up.

Turn your oven to 350. Take out a rimmed cookie sheet and line it with parchment. With your hands, form cakes out of handfuls of the zucchini mixture and place on the sheet. Bake for 15 minutes to half an hour or more, depending on how brown you like them. These are great dipped into hot sauce or left on their own, hot or cold. They’re healthy and satisfying, too.

By the time I went to bed my blood pressure had gone down to a soft beat and I felt delicious inside. Looking back I suppose it was deprivation that had been eating at me, that I had just needed to take care of myself better. I was, and still am, so surprised and happy that peace was accessible, and grateful that something in me told me what I needed to do. I didn’t have to hunt for it in a self-help book (which was good, because I never would have been able to concentrate on it) or try 714 different things at random in the hopes that they would pull me out of my anxiety. And paradoxically, by doing this I ended up getting the rest I needed; it was restful knowing I was in a clean house, and that I had great meals waiting for me.

I am sure I have probably offended some people, probably all of them women, by this account of what I did to make myself feel better. I guess it doesn’t seem like a feminist way to handle stress, that instead I should have been strapping on my attache for a corporate takeover or something like that. But I do consider myself a feminist—hard core. A clean house and a full larder is what worked for me, though I understand it wouldn’t be everyone’s way out. I admire any way a woman (or man, for that matter) is able to regain peace and a personal sense of power. Maybe that’s what the essence of feminism is, after all. Maybe it simply comes down to each woman knowing she has the ability and the right to do whatever she needs to do to get there.

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Charlie Brown had a point when he said the holiday season can be kind of a letdown. Here’s a big portion of the planet spending December frantic, shooting for some magical feeling, a high, it seems to me, that will make all of this breathless marathoning worth it…and never quite finding the finish line.

Do you get that sense, too? Like we’re all reaching for something quite possibly unattainable, at least by the means we typically use (shopping, wrapping, cooking, decorating, schlepping)?

Parents of small children know the race, for the most part, is over by 7am on Christmas morning. And I bet they’d vote for going back to sleep until mid-January if they had the choice. Jews get eight nights, chosen as they are.  But they too might well feel that sort of wistful question mark after the last candle is lit.

It’s time for a reassessment already. As often—usually—overtaxed adults, I think it’s asking a lot of a holiday, and of ourselves, to push ourselves every year to exhaustion, reaching for a phantom high.

My posts this holiday season have emphasized cutting ourselves some slack and letting go of lunatic expectations that pummel us. I have one more point to make, and here it is: Even if that holiday high is out there, it would be over in a breath. That’s the nature of euphoria. Now ask if it’s worth it.

Contentment, now—that’s a different ballgame. Contentment doesn’t get the press that euphoria gets, but it lasts longer and is far more nourishing to the soul. So maybe that’s what we should go for.

Instead of hamster-wheeling ourselves into a frenzy from Black Friday to New Year’s Day, shooting for a high, let’s shoot for warmth. Coziness. Peace.

To wit: My mom’s sour cream coffee cake. It will not find the elusive pink suede booties your sister’s lusting after. It won’t keep your dog from chewing the little round bits of Styro left on the floor, courtesy of Best Buy. But Mom found the recipe in our local newspaper some 30 years ago and has been baking it in an ancient Bundt pan every Christmas morning for decades. It’s that good. It’s a step toward contentment…I promise you.

No chocolate chips in this puppy. Idiot-proof. (Want to know how much? When I was a teenager I started mixing up this batter, and 90% of the way through I realized I hadn’t been going by the directions, but had just been dumping the ingredients into the bowl, straight down the list. It still turned out perfect.) My mom adds walnuts to the filling; I thought, and still do, that they have no place in cake. I picked them out of every slice I ate and deposited them on the cake plate, and she’d eat them over the course of the day. It was a system that worked. But add them if you like them.

1 c butter, softened

2 c sugar

2 eggs

1 c sour cream

1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract

2 c all-purpose flour

1 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

1 c chopped walnuts (optional)

1 tsp cinnamon

1/4 c brown sugar, packed

Heat oven to 350. In a large bowl, cream butter and add sugar gradually, beating until very light and fluffy. Beat in eggs one at a time, very well. Fold in cream and vanilla. In a medium-sized bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt, and add this gradually to the butter mixture.

In a small bowl, combine nuts (if using), cinnamon, and brown sugar.

Pour half of the batter into a well-greased and floured Bundt pan or 9″ tube pan. (You can really use any pan that’s big enough to hold the batter. If you use a rectangular Pyrex, or a springform pan, as I do, just reduce the cooking time.) Sprinkle with 3/4 of the cinnamon mixture. Pour remaining batter on top, then sprinkle with remaining cinnamon mixture.

Bake about 1 hour or until a tester comes out clean (check it after 45 minutes, just to be safe). Let it sit on a rack until cool. De-pan it, dust with powdered sugar and put a sprig of fresh holly on it, as my mom does, or be a heathen like me, add nothing, and cut a big greedy slice for yourself.

This cake won honorable mention in the county fair a few years ago, and the judges’ notes read, “Add more filling.” They may be right. Double the filling if you want and see if you like it better. It won for the soft, dense, tender texture—sour cream blesses every cake this way. I made the cake in the picture with plain lowfat yogurt instead of sour cream, and lessened the sugar to 3/4 c, so it’s not as high as my mom’s, but the texture is pretty much the same.

In October I broke my collarbone, moved two weeks later, then had surgery, so I couldn’t tear around like a rabid ferret the way I always do during Christmastime. Which is why I think I came up with the above shattering realization that we have the power to make the holidays a letdown or not. All I know is that I made this humble cake on Christmas Eve, and was so excited for it that I actually toyed with the idea of putting it under the tree. Contentment this year came in the shape of a springform.

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