Chopped: Rebecca Style

With five weeks left before our departure, I have become just a wee bit obsessed with using up things. Why? Because I don’t want to pack them away for three months and have to deal with them upon my return. Travel-size bottles of lotions swiped from hotels sit upside down on my bathroom shelf. The goal: have none of them left before I go. As I brush my teeth each morning and evening, I silently curse the friend who left a full size tube of toothpaste at my house. I pride myself on being able to live off a travel size one for months at a time. (As I said earlier, just a wee bit obsessed. And perhaps a wee bit crazy.)

But it’s figuring out how to use up the food that brings me the most challenge–and the most fun.

I feel like I’m in my own episode of Chopped–the TV show where three people open up mystery baskets to reveal a seemingly unrelated group of food items they must use to prepare an appetizer, entree, or dessert. One of the best parts of the show is the look contestants give when they see some of the ingredients.

That same look crossed my face when I was handed corn grits as part of my winter CSA share. Having not grown up in the South, I had not the slightest idea what to do with them. I had tried grits a few times in my travels, and found only when combined with goat cheese did I like them. (And that’s not saying much. You can combine anything with goat cheese and I’ll like it.) So this past weekend’s mission was to find something to do with them. With no goat cheese on hand, I thought, How about polenta?

The only time I’ve ever seen polenta made, let alone eaten it, was at a retreat center in Rhode Island where I served as sous-chef under an Italian woman. I remember being quite impressed at how good polenta was, but apparently not impressed enough to try it since then.

I wasn’t even sure corn grits were what one used to make polenta. After entirely too much time on the internet, I learned there is great debate on the merits of using corn grits versus corn meal. Not much debate for me though: all I had were the grits, so I decided to give it a shot.

Making polenta is a bit like making risotto: once you pour the grits into the water, you have to keep stirring. And stirring. For a half-hour my recipe said. “Until you can swipe a spatula through it, and the polenta doesn’t fill back in.” Which actually took fifty minutes.

I pulled the pile of mush off the burner, my arms exhausted. It didn’t look very appetizing, but I wasn’t going to eat it like that anyway. The Italian woman had baked it and then doled out slices of it. So I poured my grainy cake-batter-like substance into a loaf pan, covered it with some Parmesan, and tossed it in the oven.

The recipe warned that it was best to eat it right after it came out of the oven, and not to even think about eating it the next day unless you were going to fry it up in some oil, in which case they said it made one of the best breakfasts you’ll ever have.

So after it finished baking, I cut myself a slice. I wasn’t impressed. I should have known better. If that Italian woman was anything like my own Italian grandmother, she threw in some other things when I wasn’t looking. Darn. I hoped frying a slice in oil the next morning would improve things.

But it didn’t.

So what did I do? What all Italians do with food they don’t necessarily want to eat as is, but don’t want to waste: I dipped a slice in egg, then breadcrumbs, and then fried it up.

Ah, now I was getting somewhere. But I forgot to flavor the breadcrumbs, so there was room for improvement. (Yes, I know one can purchase already-flavored breadcrumbs. And I do. But Grandma Gallo taught me they’re never flavored enough, so we add to it.)

The next day, I cut another slice off the loaf. I added basil, parsley, fresh ground pepper, and a little garlic to the breadcrumbs, and voila. Divinity. A wee bit of polenta covered in fried deliciousness. And Rebecca remains the Chopped champion of her own kitchen.

My Third Thing

“A choice between two things is not a choice. It becomes a fight between right or wrong.” I read the sentence again. As the afternoon sun warmed the page, I pulled out my pen to underline it. I had never thought of it like that. No wonder I hate making decisions.

“We need a third thing, a way to step out of the conundrum.” I pulled my pen across the page again. Natalie Goldberg is brilliant, I thought. I sat on a park bench reading her book, “The True Secret of Writing” hoping to get my creative juices flowing again, and it was working. What I didn’t expect was to have so many life lessons pop out at me.

The chapter went on to explain that this “third thing” is not something that we will come up with. And it won’t present itself overnight. But the idea is that if we open ourselves to the possibility of a third thing, it will show up.

So I got down to writing, as the book instructed. What decision was I struggling with? Work. Duh. Six weeks earlier I quit my job thinking I had the perfect idea of what to pursue next (travel writing) only to find myself stymied. By what? I wasn’t sure. So I looked at other options. And though I had many, it was really a struggle between two lifestyles: that of employee–my work life dictated by someone else–or that of the self-employed.

I barely filled up a page. I had debated this so many times I was sick of hearing myself. I closed the notebook.

Four hours later, my third thing showed up.

Well, let me clarify. Yes, four hours later Michael and I decided we were moving to Europe. But like Natalie described, this decision had evolved over time.

Michael first showed up at my door five months earlier, homemade key lime pie in one hand, a mystery box in the other. Had he shown up empty-handed, I still would have been intrigued because I knew he had just returned from nine months in Central America. The majority of men in my dating pool have settled into a work life, a family life, a home life. I tried to fit into that, but, as my friend Jen said the other day, I am “a beautiful square peg” and I should stop trying to smooth my edges to fit into a round hole. I had a feeling Michael wasn’t a round peg either.

***

I don’t have many regrets in life. In general, I feel like I made the best decisions I could with the information I had. But there is one: I wish I had spent a year living in another country. It was part of my plan. After spending six weeks living with a French-speaking family in Switzerland the summer before my senior year of high school, I knew I wanted more of this experience. I’d heard college was a place where one could do something like this, so instead of doing a “gap year” (taking a year “off” between high school and college to do something incredible), I followed the crowd.

To this day, I can still see the moment my dream crashed and burned: I sat with my parents in the auditorium of Jefferson Hall at the University of Scranton. The fifty of us who had been accepted into the physical therapy program sat with our parents while the chair of the department explained what we was ahead of us. “Does anyone have any questions?” she asked.

I raised my hand. “Can we study abroad?”

She paused and looked at me like I had three heads. She explained the rigorous program, how we were not required to take all the general education courses because we had so many PT courses to take, how we had to start those courses in our junior year. Junior year: the year most students study abroad.

I don’t remember anything else after that. Recalling that conversation still brings tears to my eyes twenty years later.

Michael was twenty-seven when he moved to Paris. He spent three months at the Sorbonne before deciding to move back to New York. He’s regretted it ever since.

What was brewing here was a perfect storm.

***

Michael’s mother planned on him joining the family on a Mediterranean cruise this summer. Since the day I met him, I knew he didn’t want to go, and I understood. We’re not cruise people. If we’re going to visit a place, we’re not going for a day or a week.

Four hours after I finished writing about my two choices, Michael and I sat on the patio of a coffee shop, the sun pouring down. His mother had finally canceled the deposit on his room (or so she said).  But he’d also learned that, now, both his brothers were going. “Well, now it’s becoming a family trip,” I said. “No wonder your mother wants you to go.”

“Are you saying we should go?” he asked.

“We?”

“Of course ‘we.’ You think I’d go without you?” Well, frankly, yes. This was the first time the idea of me going had ever come up. I stumbled over my words. I wasn’t a cruise person either. This wasn’t something I budgeted for when I quit my job.

But I figured the ports in the Mediterranean wouldn’t be the tourist traps I had seen in the Caribbean. And I had frequent flyer miles–enough to get us both to Europe.

“You know, if we’re going to go, we should go earlier,” he said. Yep. If we were going to Europe, we were going for at least a month. Hell, why not a year? And with that, my third choice appeared before me.

————

(Note: Per the Shengen Agreement, we can’t spend more than three months of every six in most of Europe. Unless we buy property there, have a job there, marry a native, etc. So we’re going for three months. At which point we’ll return to the US to attend some family events happening in September and October. And from there, who knows where we’ll go next. What on earth will I do over there? Well, that’s for another post. In short: I’m sure I’ll figure it out.)

 

Being Catholic: A Reason, A Season or a Lifetime?

It is hard to walk a 500-mile pilgrimage trail without thinking about religion. In 2012 (the year I walked the Camino) 93% of pilgrims who arrived in Santiago reported that their reason for walking was, at least in part, religious.

I was part of that 93%. Having been born Catholic, I knew it would always be part of my past, but I had long been wondering: would it be part of my future?

Click here to read more.

A Belated Christmas Gift

Jessica was the second sibling to receive a hand-made crocheted blanket from me. As she pulled her Christmas gift from its wrapping, the family ooh’ed and aah’ed.

“How long did it take you to make that?” Meg, my youngest sister, asked.

“Forty hours,” I said, without hesitation.

“How do you know that?”

“Well, I timed how long it took to make each piece so I knew how much I’d have to do each day in order to finish it in time for Christmas.”

“And at the hourly rate she charges, that blanket is priceless,” my father chimed in. At the time, I was a very-well-paid medical computer systems consultant.

“Well,” Meg said, with a wry smile on her face, “I want a sixty hour blanket.” We all laughed, but a few years later Meg got her wish.

Meg was the first–and last–person I ever said could pick out the blanket they wanted me to make. I handed her a pattern book from which I’d made some afghans previously. She picked a pattern of squares, each with a different color flower in its center.

I started that pattern and grew quite frustrated at how poorly it was written. I then realized that not all the patterns in this book were written by the same person, so though other afghans in the book were not hard for me to figure out, this one was much more challenging.

I finally gave in and told Meg I was sorry, but I couldn’t make the one she picked out. Ever the understanding sibling, she laughed about it and assured me that whatever I made she would be happy with it.

That Christmas morning, Meg pulled her blanket from it’s packaging. After the requisite ooh’s and aah’s, Meg donned her familiar wry smile and asked “So how long did it take you to make?”

“Definitely more than Jessica’s,” I assured her.

“Yessss,” she said, eyeing Jessica.

Some years later, my only brother mentioned he wanted a hand-made blanket from me. I never thought to make him one, let alone imagined he would ever request one.

“But you have one Grandma Gallo made you. And you have the one Grandma Doss had on her couch when we were growing up.”

“But I don’t have one you made,” he said. Jeffrey sure knew how to charm his sisters.

And so it was that I set about finding a pattern for Jeffrey. No flowers. No fringe. Certainly no lacy open-work. The first pattern I picked, once I got started, I found boring. If I was bored making it, I’d surely never finish it. So a mere month before Christmas I decided on a different pattern: the Vortex Afghan.

Looking back now, I wonder what possessed me to try a blanket with such a name. Indeed, I felt sucked into a vortex every time I sat down to work on it. With other afghans, I would eventually have the pattern memorized for having repeated it so much. I could then talk to people and crochet at the same time. But not this one. There was never a part of this blanket I could do without the pattern right beside me. More than once, while attempting to watch television while making the blanket, I had to pull out some of it and start again, having lost where I was.

Even if you don’t crochet, you can appreciate this: Each of the twelve blocks started as a circle, and when I was finished it was a square with a circle inside. Not only that, but each circle has two colors, spiraling around each other.

The pattern was so time-consuming that I knew there was no way to have it finished by Christmas. Though I felt bad, I knew Jeffrey would understand.

Jeffrey has always been the most easy-going of my siblings. The only boy among four girls, he learned early on that the easiest thing to do was step aside and let the girls to their squabbling, their demanding. He would just sit back, take it all in, and every once in a while, when things were getting a little too tense, he would step in and change the subject so smoothly that not a single one of us could pick up on it.

For Christmas, I pinned together the six blocks I had made and wrote Jeffrey a letter explaining the situation:

A Christmas Letter

A Christmas Letter

My parents were due to visit me in Asheville in February and my goal was to have the blanket finished by then so they could bring it back to Jeffrey in New York. On Groundhog Day, I noted on Facebook that I was happy there were six more weeks of winter: that meant there was a chance it would be cold enough for Jeffrey to use his afghan this winter.

By the time my parents arrived, all the blocks were completed but I still had some assembling to do, then a border to complete. While Dad drove us to visit a small town in South Carolina, I sat in the backseat crocheting that border. It was the easiest part of the whole thing.

A Work-in-Progress

A Work-in-Progress

My parents left five days later, the completed blanket taking its place in their car.

Last night, Jeffrey’s fiance texted me a picture of him with his blanket, wrapped around his face like a nun’s habit.

IMG959363

Jeffrey would never say how many hours he wanted dedicated to his blanket. He might think it, but knew better than to say a word to me, the super-sensitive eldest. He didn’t have to, of course. Jeffrey, without having said a word, won the prize.

The Finished Product

The Finished Product

Luck? “I think not,” she says.

I should take showers more often. Not for hygiene reasons (I think life is entirely too short to waste so much of it on such a silly daily ritual). I’d take them more often for this reason only: it’s under that flow of water that I come up with some of my best writing ideas. Tonight, it was this (with apologies for all the hot water wasted because I wanted to keep working on the idea):

Since graduating high school, I have never lived in the same home (or town) more than two years.  I’ve never lived in the same state more  than four. Never held a full-time job longer than sixteen months, a part-time job longer than five years. And this was all by choice.

Long have I wondered if I would ever find “it”: the place, the job, (or, for that matter the spouse) with which I would have a lasting love affair. Conversations with friends  have often centered on this very topic: my (at times exhausting) search for “it.” Ideas about what “it” could be. Where “it” could be. What I’d learned “it” certainly wasn’t.

And then one day I realized (or maybe I read it in a book, or heard it from a friend) that THIS is who I am. Right now, in this moment. It may or may not be my future. But really, who cares dear Rebecca? So what if I never find work I want to do for any length of time. I am, in this moment, someone who finds the idea a little boring. So what if I move every few years? Frankly, the idea often excites me (though my mother will tell you it also very often drives me insane). Because think about it: after just seven months of living in Asheville, I found myself exploring new territory less and less. I had found the places I loved to watched live music, to linger over a good meal with friends, to curl up with a good book. And I didn’t care to search anymore.

But as they (i.e. my mother) say, “The grass is always greener.” When I’m on the road, I often wish for the comfort of knowing exactly the place to go for that perfect meal, that soul-searching conversation, that hip-swaying music. But when I’m in place where I have all of that, my soul starts to whisper, “It’s time.” Time for a trip. Maybe to a new town ten minutes away. Or a country a plane ride away. Or maybe it’s time to move. Or take a sabbatical. 

I have lived a wonderful life, filled with incredible experiences, unforgettable people, some of whom passed through my life for just a moment, others who stuck around a bit longer, and every variation in between. I am damn lucky. Actually, no. As my minister said the other day, “Luck has nothing to do with it.” And a light bulb came on. “You bring into your life that which you put out there.” Oh. My. God.

  • I thought back to the conversation with my mother that very day about the new potential job I seemingly ran into. “Why is it that wherever you go people want to give you jobs?”
  • I remember the time I called a financial planner for advice. In between my contacting him and us having our phone call, his wife read my blog. When I asked his rates he said, “Oh – sorry I didn’t mention this earlier. My wife is completely enamored by you and the way you live your life, and so am I, so we’ve decided to take you on pro bono.” I recalled a friend’s reaction upon hearing this. “How is it you always manage to fall bass-ackwards into these things?”
  • Yes, I’m the girl that had two nights of couchsurfing turn into seven months of rent-free living in a town I loved. Oh, and did I mention my hosts were not only fascinating people, but also had a love of cooking and sharing it with me?

This may all seem lucky to you. Indeed long-time friends, upon hearing what I just “stumbled” into, often say, “Well, I’m surprised, but not really, because it is you after all. Of course it would happen to you.” And maybe that’s just it. Remember the film “It Could Happen to You”? I don’t either, but I remember the title. And silly me, I believed it.

But it turns out it wasn’t silly at all.

  • I’m working thirty-two hours per week these days. I can take those eight hours off whenever I so please. Luck? Nope. When I first took the job, it’s what I said I would do: make myself so indispensable that they couldn’t turn down my request.
  • That free housing in Asheville? Nope. That wasn’t “luck” either. I first of all believed that the world is full of good people, and found a whole community of them at couchsurfing.org. Then I put out to the universe (my friends, strangers) that I’d like to live in Asheville. I didn’t need to know how. I just had to put the idea out there. And the opportunity came to me in a way I never could have imagined.

Don’t limit your possibilities by telling the universe exactly what you want,” my minister said a few weeks ago. “Don’t say you want a million dollars. Because honestly, would you turn down the person who offered you a hundred million? Instead, put the idea of abundance out there. And watch what happens. There’s more out there than you ever imagined.”

Huh. This woman knew me. I’m the girl that thinks the question “Where do you want to be in five years” is so silly for this very reason. “There is no way I could know that,” I say. “Do you have any idea how many things exist now that none of us imagined five years ago? And you want me to limit my thinking to only what I know, only what I can envision? Five years from now I’ll be doing things none of us could have never predicted.” But they’ll be things someone put out to the universe at some point. And “by luck,” they showed up.

—–

Go ahead. Try it. I dare you. Put some outrageous idea out there. No need to figure out how it will happen. That’s not necessary. Just believe in the idea. Write it down. Tell a few people. Or not. Make a collage about it. Or not. Just put it out there, then hide it away or tell the world. And watch what happens.

A Sadness Story (Mine)

This morning I woke up tired, as per usual. It wasn’t always like this. Up until a few months ago, I was a morning person: one of those people most of you hate for how much we accomplish before 9AM. I would wake up at 6:30, write, meditate, run, and still have time to not only make myself a healthy breakfast but to eat it sitting down quietly and then tackle a small project before heading out to work. But something has changed.

I took on a full-time job almost a year ago. Six months later, I was asked/moved into Sales. (That’s a whole other story.) It wasn’t going so well. I’d had crying spells–sometimes at work–since I started working at the company, but after starting the Sales position, I thought they were getting more frequent. At the suggestion of my mother and doctor-friends, I started tracking these spells and found they were actually occurring nearly every day. I stopped tracking. An appointment with a doctor was scheduled, and my search for a therapist began. But I knew what it was. My job.

Some time ago I learned that working full-time is not for me. Say whatever you’d like, but we all have our variations. It’s not that I don’t want to work forty hours. It’s that I don’t want to work all those hours in one job, in one place. I thought, for a while, that maybe if I found work I loved, I’d be able to do it for forty hours a week. But I’ve come to realize it doesn’t matter what I’m doing. I like the freedom of doing a variety of things during my day–not just on my lunch hour.

I knew in my heart it was my work life, but I still went for traditional medicine. It took months to find a therapist that 1) had availability and 2) accepted my insurance. I wondered if that was some sort of sign. I plugged ahead. I’ve tried two different anti-depressive medications. The side effect I’m trying to remedy? Tiredness. I wake up every morning feeling like I was hit by a truck. And I think, “This must be what those people that must have coffee in the morning feel like.” I have a new-found sympathy for those people.

There is one difference: sometimes my tiredness is accompanied by a fluttering or anxious feeling in my chest. I lay in bed checking my pulse, frustrated that my life has come to this. Then I snooze my alarm and try to go back to sleep, hoping I don’t die due to whatever my heart is going through. Five more minutes, I just need five more minutes. Or I reset my alarm entirely giving myself another half hour.

When I started my new Sales position, one of the higher-ups said, “I sleep better knowing you’re in Sales.”

“That’s funny,” I said, “I’m having a lot of trouble sleeping.” Because it wasn’t just tiredness in the morning, but I had also lost the ability to shut my mind off at night as well.

The tiredness hit me such that my morning routine started to slip away. First the running. Then the meditating. The writing is now gone, as are hopes of sitting down to a healthy breakfast.  All the things that naturally help depression, I was doing every morning. And now, they are gone. So are the crying spells, but I wonder if I’d rather have them back in exchange for my relaxing mornings.

The only reason this post is getting written is because I woke up today and decided to take the day off. I didn’t get out of bed til nearly 11 am. Some of you might find this glorious, and I’ve wondered if maybe this is my body again trying to tell me something: that I need rest, that I need to stop something.

I’ve tried resting more. Whether sleeping or just sitting in my recliner to read. “The rest your body is asking you for is not just sleep,” one therapist told me. “It’s also in slowing down.”

I’ve even thought to just accept that bodies change, and maybe my days of being a morning person are over. But inside I know that’s not true. This is more that just “I can’t get up in the morning.” There’s something more. Something deeper.

The week before Christmas I saw my doctor again. I knew it had taken some people a full year to find the “right” medication for them. But I hadn’t planned on being on these medications that long to begin with. “We can try another one,” she said, “but I have another suggestion. I don’t know how you’ll feel about it, or if it’s even possible for you.”

“Eh, tell me anyway. I’m up for anything.”

“I think you should cut your hours at your job. Work part-time.”

I laughed. “Yeah, I kind of knew that. It’s been on my mind a lot lately.” In fact one of my two therapists (yes, two, that’s a whole other story) also suggested I go part-time. And I planned to inquire, but hadn’t yet.

“I work four days a week,” my doctor said. “I feel the same way you do about it.”

The difference between me and you, though, is that you love your job, I thought.

“I can give you a note if that would help,” she told me.

“Nah. I don’t think I’ll need it.”

This has all happened to me before: “situational depression” has been used to describe my symptoms more than once. Indeed, the last time this happened I was miraculously healed when I quit my job. But I’d like to think I have a little more wisdom and can approach this whole thing a little less drastically. (Though a friend asked the other day, “How would you feel if they fired you?” and I said, without hesitation, “Oh, I’d be so relived!”)

So my plan is not to quit entirely (yet), but to at least quit Sales.

Upon arriving at work after the appointment, I told my boss that, at my physicians suggestion, I needed to work part-time. He was surprised, but seemed open to the idea. It shouldn’t have been too unusual. When I was first offered a position with the company I asked to work 35 instead of 40 hours and was turned down. I considered not taking the job thinking that a company who couldn’t cut a measly five hours was not one I would want to work for. But instead, I told my long-time friends (who were unanimously mystified as to why I would ever take a corporate 9-5 job again) that my goal was this: to make myself so indispensable that the next time I asked to go part-time, they’d definitely say yes. And that’s exactly where I stand at this very moment.

The timing was right on track as well. I’ve never lasted in a full-time job more than 16 months. Part-time jobs? I’ve lasted for years. But full-time? I average about a year, and the end of this month will mark my one-year anniversary with this company.

And Sales? Really, Rebecca, what were you thinkingWell, I like trying new things. Note to self: that is not reason enough to commit to a forty-hour week doing something you  never in your life have ever wanted to do.

I was finding all this hard to explain to those at work: why was all this change so necessary for me? Then Barbara Winter posted an article on Facebook by Martha Beck called “Knowing When to Quit”. I’m an expert at quitting. I wasn’t always. Mom wouldn’t allow us to quit lessons or sports til the school year or season was over. But once I wasn’t under Mom’s roof, I finely tuned the art of resigning. And frankly I love the whole topic. When a friend calls to tell me she resigned from a job, I’m the one that says, “Congratulations! Enjoy it!”

I laughed out loud when Martha’s article quoted W.C. Fields: “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.” But even better was the next line where Martha told me that science actually supports Mr. Fields. “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the ability to quit easily makes us healthier—and wealthier—than does leechlike tenacity.” Hell, if that’s true, I should be the a billionaire Olympian by now.

So here’s to hoping that quitting Sales brings me that health and wealth. And if that doesn’t work, well, my long-time friends know what comes next. Though any other suggestions are certainly welcome.