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Learning About Myself Through Painting Classes

May 11, 2017

I have a confession to make. Up until last fall, I was skeptical of group painting classes where people gather together to paint the same canvas and drink wine.

I always thought there would be no way I’d attend one of those classes because I am totally not artistic in the least. And I was intimidated. Seeing that perfect painted image, I’d feel anxious, thinking there was no way I could recreate that masterpiece.

Here’s the funny part. When I was young, I spent hours watching PBS painting shows even had my own canvases and acrylics so I could recreate the art. But over the years, I lost interest in that hobby.

As many of you know, last year we moved to Terre Haute and I literally did not know a soul in my new town. I started to get to know a few local boutique owners who offered painting and craft classes. In an attempt to meet nice, local people and do something different, I dipped my toes into the crafting waters through some art classes that Sophie and did together.

Then they offered a whimsical pumpkin canvas class. Knowing how much I love pumpkins and fall and trusting/liking the instructor I’d come to know, I decided to give the painting class a try.

While I was certainly nervous and felt a bit anxious, I really enjoyed my first painting class. It was — dare I say — relaxing in many ways. I liked doing something completely different with my brain and hands that didn’t involve typing or thinking in the same way I do during the day.

Here’s a photo of my first painted canvas. And while I was critical the swirls didn’t turn on the way they looked in the model, I’m proud that I took the leap of faith and did something new.

Since then, I’ve gone on to paint several more canvases through the Painting and Pie classes offered through the local parks and recreation department. It’s an relaxing evening of painting, listening to music and eating a slice of pie at the Grand Traverse Pie Company. Since I’m not a big wine drinker, the pie is a perfect accompaniment!

One of the lessons that’s been important for me to learn is that painting is a process, and a the work cannot be “judged” until the end. What I mean is I can’t spend time criticizing my work at each step. It’s so easy to say, “That line is crooked” or “The flower is too small.”

Instead, I try very hard to simply paint in the moment. Then at the end, step back and look at the entire view. It’s amazing how the work changes from the beginning and middle to the end. And how a “flaw” transforms into part of the beautiful whole.

Here’s a few of the canvases I’ve painted over the months.

This covered bridge painting is probably my favorite.

I was most nervous to paint Rudolph. I’m still critical of the wreath and his small head.

I love this one!

The pop of the the red cardinals against the wintry birch trees adds so much.

This canvas of hot coffee in the winter morning background was in my kitchen for quite a while.

It was a perfect, rainy the evening the night I painted this one.

April showers bring May flowers!

Embracing painting has been an eye-opening experience for me. It’s helped me find a new way to be creative, and I love capturing nature and the change of seasons on canvas. I’ve also given myself permission to accept that my art doesn’t have to be perfect — that itself is a great lesson to learn!

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Currently I’m …

April 12, 2017

I’m trying something new here on the blog, using the “currently” prompt. Feel free to play along in the comments, on your own blog or social media.

Currently I’m …

Inspired by …

Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the Power of Narrative conference in Boston and it was phenomenal. The mission of the conference — which has been taking place for 19 years — is “helping narrative journalists to strengthen their craft skills, puzzle out the complex ethics of intimate journalism, and impart the down-to-earth humanity that is the genre’s strength.” We heard speakers such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, Sonia Nazario (Enrique’s Journey), Sheri Fink, and so many other talented writers. It was truly inspiring to be in a room full of journalists and writers and people wanting to tell stories and do good work that makes a different in the world. It was all humbling and made me want to do better.

Thinking About …

I’ve been thinking about how spring is in full bloom (no pun intended) here in Indiana . The days are getting longer and the sun is appearing earlier and staying out later. Everything is greener — the trees are coming back to life with leaves; and flowers are blooming, even ones in our yard I’d never seen before. I really love seeing and feeling the seasons change before my eyes.

The weather is warming a bit, and this weekend we had all the windows open and enjoyed a warm (but not too warm) breeze flow through the rooms. And then yesterday, we had heavy rain and a thunder/lightening storm. It’s fascinating really, seeing the weather change so quickly.

Watching …

There’s lots of great television airing right now. I’m so excited “Better Call Saul” season three is on the air. We did a big binge-watch of season two on Netflix this past weekend. I’m also liking “The Good Fight,” which is the spin-off to “The Good Wife” on CBS Access. It’s SO good — much better than the original series. We’re also enjoying “Billions” on Showtime, and I’m struggling to get through the final season of “Bates Motel.” It’s really slow, and they probably could have written the final series in four or five episodes.

Reading …

The best book I’ve read lately is Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. This book was super interesting and Vance does an amazing job of really shedding light on the Rust Belt rural middle class of America. I found the book even more relevant now that I live in Indiana and what he writes about could be a few streets away from me. It’s also been helpful to understand how President Trump was elected and what made this traditional Democratic Rest Belt community change to Republican country.

Listening to …

I listened to the Making Oprah podcast, which is a limited series about how the “Oprah Winfrey Show” began and its journey. Like so many of you, I used to come home from work and watch the show. It’s fun to revisit some of the topics and hearing Oprah herself. I’m also about to dive into the Reveal podcast, which is a series of mysteries produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

On the music front, I continue to listen to Dawes, even more so after I saw them in concert last month. They played for three hours and it was incredible!

Eating/Drinking …

I don’t have anything that exciting to report on the eating/drinking front. I’ve been making lots of meals from Plated and Home Chef. (You can read my reviews of these meal services here.) When I was in Boston, I took advantage of the restaurant selection and ordered a few seafood dishes. I do miss fresh seafood in Indiana. We still eat fish, but it’s not as abundant as it was in San Diego.

What’s currently going on in your life these days?

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The Journey Home

March 22, 2017

Have you ever thought about how many stories, songs and themes revolve around the concept of home, and finding your way home?

The theme of “The Wizard of Oz” is summed up by Dorothy when she said, “there’s no place like home.” In “The Grapes of Wrath,” the family took to their car (their only home during the Great Depression) to seek a new home in California. The movie “Beautiful Girls” sees Timothy Hutton going home for his high school reunion. In my favorite television show, “The Killing,” the main character realizes that home was not a place; but was the feeling she had with the person who knew her best.

It’s nearly impossible to count the number of songs that speak to this theme. There’s “Homeward Bound” (Simon and Garfunkel), “Two of Us” (The Beatles), “You’re My Home” (Billy Joel), and “My Way Back Home” (Dawes), just to name a few. And let’s not forget the famous adages: “Home is where the heart is,” or “home is a state of mind.”

All these references and themes make me wonder if we have all — at some point or another — tried to figure out where we belong, and where home actually exists.

I’ve thought a lot about the concept of home and that journey toward it over the last year. For nearly all my life, San Diego was home. It was the place I grew up, where my family lives, and where I made a life for myself. And then I left it all behind when we moved to Indiana to — literally — make a life and home in a new city, state and house.

One of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in my life was driving four days across country, away from San Diego and toward Terre Haute. There was something incredibly freeing about knowing that all I had was the open road ahead and what was in the car with me. Even if I wanted to turn back, there was not a home to go back to (in the general sense). Our belongings were gone and the people and pets that mattered most to me were not there anymore. I don’t remember ever feeling that unconfined in my entire life — there was no going backwards; only forward, to a new idea of home.

We’ve been in Indiana going on nine months, and I’ve come to find that my core feels home. Not necessarily because of the physical structure I live in (but that helps too). It’s because my state-of-mind is here. I belong in this place — both physical and mental — with everything that symbolizes home to me.

But what has also solidified for me the idea that I’m home is how much has changed in the life I left behind. The home we lived in for 11 years does not have any resemblance of us. It’s occupied by someone else. Friends that I was close to in San Diego have also left to start life elsewhere. Restaurants we frequented every week have closed their doors. The elementary school we attended for three years has lost teachers and community members.

These observations are not meant to be depressing. They’re just symbolic of change and how life moves on, even if you’re not there. They’ve helped me realize that for me, home is not where I’m from; it’s where I am.

So what is home to me?

It’s the place where I am at peace, with myself and my surroundings. It’s where I feel calm. Home is the family I surround myself with each day, and the pets that follow me from room to room. It’s the few treasured items on my bookshelves and the music that plays while I write on this blog. And I know now, more than ever, that I am home.

“I admit that these answers that I seek
Are all to questions I’ve never known
But I pray to keep on looking for as long as I can roam
And when the world finally fulfills me
I will not forget my way back home.”

— Dawes (“My Way Back Home”)

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Author Alexandra Burt Talks About “The Good Daughter” and Why Texas Plays a Role in the Novel

March 9, 2017

I met Alexandra Burt a few years ago when I reviewed her novel, Remember Mia, and she wrote an awesome guest post for my blog. Today I am fortunate to call her one of my virtual friends as we’ve gotten to know each other more through social media. We both share the same love of dark character-driven television dramas.

So when the opportunity came up to read her new novel, The Good Daughter, I jumped at the chance. I loved the books, and the characters are so compelling and the story is a page-turner.

One of the things I love about so many books and well-written television and movies is how setting/place plays an important role in the story. If done well, the setting really becomes another character in the story. Alexandra does this extremely well with the setting of Texas in The Good Daughter.

I’m so excited Alexandra’s sharing another essay here today. In this post, she writes about her home state of Texas, and how she came to love the Lone Star State and how it became an important part of this story.

On a personal note, when we drove from San Diego to Indiana last summer, we spent half that driving time going through Texas. The size of the state is almost unbelievable, until you’ve spent 10 hours driving from El Paso to Dallas, surrounded by only big skies and vast fields. There’s an overwhelming beauty to it, which Alexandra captures so well in her essay below and in The Good Daughter.

——-

Before I turn it over to Alexandra, here’s the description of The Good Daughter (from Amazon):

From the author of Remember Mia comes the tale of a young woman in search of her past, and the mother who will do anything to keep it hidden.

What if you were the worst crime your mother ever committed?

Dahlia Waller’s childhood memories consist of stuffy cars, seedy motels, and a rootless existence traveling the country with her eccentric mother. Now grown, she desperately wants to distance herself from that life. Yet one thing is stopping her from moving forward: she has questions.

In order to understand her past, Dahlia must go back. Back to her mother in the stifling town of Aurora, Texas. Back into the past of a woman on the brink of madness. But after she discovers three grave-like mounds on a neighboring farm, she’ll learn that in her mother’s world of secrets, not all questions are meant to be answered…

——-

My Texas ~ By Alexandra Burt

I grew up in the East Hesse highlands of Germany, a densely forested low mountain area. A most magical region where I roamed the woods and rural fields with skinned knees. I had bigger plans even then, as if my life felt temporary somehow. For as long as I can think back I wanted to go to America. In my mid-twenties I boarded a plane and after a short stint in Louisiana, I drove into Texas from the east. I left the bayous of Louisiana behind and made my way to the Lone Star State. Texas had never been my choice; my husband was stationed at Ft. Hood, the most populous military instillation in the U.S. Such was the military life, you go where they send you and just deal, as all military families do. I wasn’t sad to leave the humid and subtropical climate of Louisiana behind, including the copperheads and bugs as big as the palm of my hand. Even though a large sign exclaimed ‘Welcome to Texas,’ I didn’t know I had arrived. The coastal marshes and swamps remained for miles on end but finally I spotted piney woods that gave way to the interior lowlands with their gently rolling hills and larger forests.

The first thing I learned about Texas was its enormity. Putting the size in perspective demanded distances be listed in hours it takes to get somewhere (Texas is about 800 miles long, that’s almost 1,300 km) and was the equivalent drive my family used to make going on holiday from Germany to Italy every summer when I was a child. My initial impression of Texas was a juxtaposition of vast expansion and constant change of terrain. As the years passed, I explored the beaches of the Gulf Coast, Big Bend country with the grandeur of the Old West, prairies and lakes, the panhandle plains, and rolling hills and canyons—Texas was seven different places in one, really.

The second thing I learned was that the Texas climate is as varied as its regions: from arid in the west to humid in the east, from subtropical to desert-like. I spent the next years witnessing frequent tornadoes, tropical hurricanes coming from the Gulf Coast, and significant floods. I struggled with the essence of Texas, just couldn’t connect with it. How does this land go from arid to flood stricken, from cracked soil to batten down the hatchets to keep your belongings from being carried down the street as your yard turns into a lake? Every morning I woke with a clear need to feel at home while something inside of me resisted.

And every day I wrote about other cities, other regions, other places. Texas was not only hard to love but much harder to write about. I felt constricted and consciously knew my innate attitude was the origin of my feeling of ‘not-belonging.’ I loathed summers, they seemed to demand a certain kind of grit that I wasn’t willing to extend to a place that I was eventually going to leave behind. All I ever thought about was fall, I looked forward to it like a kid awaiting Christmas. When the birds gathered for their great migration south, when grass went dormant, and Halloween loomed on the horizon—then and only then it was time to rejoice. But then… the next summer loomed and the long fall and winter shadows were short-lived and temporary.

There was no reprieve in sight and there just wasn’t anything to love. How do you thrive in 100 degrees in July, which is over 40 Celsius? How do you get used to melting candles when your air conditioning goes out? I’ve seen it with my own eyes; first the candles turn soft, then their base shifts, ending up in an unrecognizable heap of wax with a crooked wick. How do you connect with wilted crops in the fields and a heat visible to the naked eye? What’s to love about mirages and wavy lines on pavement, and something that looks like steam rising from a road or sidewalk after a summer rain? How do you live with your heels digging into asphalt soft as a sponge and dogs’ paws unable to walk on it for weeks on end without blisters forming on their pads?

I admit, I found Texas a hard place to love for the better part of 20 years. I was reluctant to invest any feelings in the union, after all we didn’t mean to stay, had thought about moving for years, but never got around to it. There was no specific state we wanted to move to and since it was all the same to us, making a choice was the equivalent of pointing a finger at a map with our eyes closed. If we were going to move, we decided on New York City as our first choice. After all, it was the city that I visited often and immediately a feeling of home had descended upon me. It had the same climate I was used to, the buildings were sturdy and made to last, nothing like the clapboard houses and Texas bungalows with sandy clinker bricks and fireplaces that were just for show.

There are only two kinds of Texans: born and raised, or, as a popular bumper sticker goes, ‘I wasn’t born in Texas but I came here as fast as I could.’ But neither one was true for me. Where did I fit in, who was I and how could I embrace this land that I looked upon as an arranged marriage, temporary at best? Was I a transplanted non-native tree that just didn’t thrive in this climate? I knew I was partially to blame, I set my stories in New York City and California, as my way to escape and vicariously live somewhere else. I could write about other places forever but why was I incapable of appreciating the place I lived in? Would I feel at home somewhere else? There was a flicker of a recognition; what if moving was just a temporary fix and eventually the novelty of another state would wear off and I’d complain about cold winters and rainy days?

I wanted to write about Texas, longed for it to seep into my pores and change me somehow. As the years passed, it seemed like a waste to live here for decades and not be touched by its rich history: Conquistadors on a Texas beach in search for God, gold, and glory. But this was Indian country, with vibrant societies and cultures and even though Spanish conquistadors had claimed both glory and gold, they had also destroyed native culture along the way. My favorite hiking trail is around a local lake, where I found arrowheads and encountered a local woman who told me of native spirits haunting rural properties, how angry they were and refused communication with the living, wanting nothing to do with the people who had destroyed their way of life. I suddenly understood the essence of the land, felt it in the soil between my hands. I connected to what was lost, what once was. I was onto something yet there was no connection with the land as it lay before me if it wasn’t for its history.

Then one day, while driving home after an Agents & Editors Conference from Austin—I didn’t take the highway but the backroads—and on a rural road I came upon a boy on the cusp of manhood pedaling a bicycle. He clumsily steered his way through the hot July afternoon on a road hazy with heat. He wore a suit and a tie and there was a wilted bouquet of flowers in his hand as he clasped on to the handlebar of the bicycle. It was a mere moment as I passed by, seconds really, yet something stirred inside of me. I was dying to know where he was going, thought either a funeral or maybe he wanted to propose marriage. He was the picture of grit and invention, of carrying on in the face of utter opposition of everything around him. The way he defied the July heat, not even a lack of transportation kept him from his mission, the suit that was going to cling to his body once he arrived wherever he was going, yet he had put it on and went on his way. The flowers in his hands had already begun to wilt and would end up a sad bunch upon his arrival, yet still he pedaled on. I still long to know with a fierceness bordering on obsession where he was going, but most of all it was his determination that moved something inside of me. It happened then, in that instant; I was able to tease out words. I wrote my second novel and I chose a fictional town in rural Texas. I named it Aurora, which means dawn in Latin. Dawn is the beginning of the twilight before sunrise, a place I had been stuck in for so long. I couldn’t have chosen Aurora, Texas, if it hadn’t been for the fact that the rolling hills and lakes demanded stories be told and abandoned farms longed to be given oxygen to propel forward whatever life was left in them.

It wasn’t until I allowed Texas to be what it was with all its heat waves and flooding and tornadoes that the land began to tease out the love that was needed for me to be at peace. What was unlovable had become worthwhile, the strange had become familiar, and the familiar tugged on me and eventually I ended up in love. It might have been an arranged marriage, but it grew into something much more: the ‘Welcome to Texas’ sign was no longer a mocking, but an honest greeting. And one day, after I landed at the local municipal airport, I had a feeling of coming home. You can’t help but love what sustains you, as long as you give it a chance. “We’re home,” I say now as we pass the sign and I mean it.

Thank you so much, Alexandra, for sharing this post with my readers.

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Blue Apron, Sun Basket, Hello Fresh, Plated: I’ve Tried Them All and Here’s What I Think

February 16, 2017

I have tried many different dinner systems over the years — meal planning, once-a-month-cooking, The Fresh 20, Dream Dinners, you name it! I enjoy cooking and we eat at home nearly every night (except for maybe one weekend night). But gone are the days when I had the motivation to do extensive planning and meals.

That being said, it’s still very important to me that we eat healthy meals at home made with fresh ingredients that I prepare (for the most part). So I have given myself the gift of using boxed meal subscription services on a somewhat regular basis. I’ve tried all the big ones over the years — Blue Apron, Plated, Sun Basket and Hello Fresh. I still supplement our dinners with my own recipes, but these dinners are a nice way to have fresh ingredients sent to my door along with a recipe and a shot of motivation.

I’ve decided to share my thoughts about the meal boxes — their advantages and disadvantages — and which ones I continue to use.

Blue Apron fresh tomato linguini with Cesar salad

Before I give you my impressions of each service, let me point out a few universal things:

  • Most all of these services have an option where you can try the service for free, and then continue.
  • All the companies allow you to skip weeks without any penalty, as long as it’s done in the time frame. So if you don’t like the meal choices for a given week, you just pause that week.
  • There was a lot of criticism at one point about these services being environmentally wasteful with all the packaging. I believe all of them now offer recycling programs so you can easily donate the boxes and cooling material. But I have to admit, recycling was never an issue for me. We already recycle EVERYTHING. So all the little containers, bottles, cans, etc. went right into our blue recycle bin, along with the broken down cardboard box.

NOTE: This is NOT a sponsored post. None of these are affiliate links and I’m not getting free dinners for sharing this information.

And now, here are my thoughts on all these meal services.

Blue Apron Za’atar chicken souvlaki with oven baked fries

BLUE APRON

I have been using Blue Apron the longest and most frequently, and we’ve loved nearly all the meals. Even Sophie — who is the pickiest of eaters — will eat a Blue Apron dinner without (or with minimal) complaint. The ingredients are fresh and the dinners are innovative (not ideas I would typically think of), yet they are not complicated recipes. Some of my favorite recipes have been Mexican spiced beef and rice casserole, Za’atar chicken souvlaki, and fresh linguine pasta and heirloom tomato sauce.

I will say that Blue Apron has a lot of extra steps that can be cut from the cooking process. For example, you can cut your prep time considerably by using your own pre-chopped garlic and ginger. They also have you use multiple bowls for prepping ingredients. I tend to eliminate some of those extra bowls by adding the chopped ingredients straight into the pots/pans when appropriate. Less dishes to clean is always good!

Since I’ve been a customer for a while, I have a few free Blue Apron meals I can give away. If you’d like to try a few free dinners, leave me your email address in a comment below and I’ll have a Blue Apron email sent your way!

PLATED

I recently signed up for Plated and have been really impressed so far. The recipes have fewer steps than Blue Apron, and the prep work is considerably less. For example, the garlic is sent in pre-pealed cloves and the cheese is already shredded. I also think the amount of ingredients they send are larger than Blue Apron. One of the recipes called for Parmesan cheese and I didn’t even use all that Plated sent. Whereas with Blue Apron, I sometimes supplemented things like Parm with my own stash.

I also like that Plated packages all the ingredients for each recipe in separate bags, which makes it easier to grab what you need for one dinner. Another advantage to Plated is you can chose which recipes you want as opposed to Blue Apron where there are two options. For example, if there’s a dish with pork chops, I’ll exclude it for a dinner option with chicken, fish or beef instead.

Plated seems to be a bit pricier than Blue Apron, but you can also adjust the number of servings and dinners you want per week. That makes it easy to stick to a budget.

SUN BASKET

I would describe Sun Basket as the more organic, non-GMO, “crunchy” and sustainable option. Many of their meals are paleo or gluten free (even if you don’t select that option). While this is great for a lot of people, my family likes its dairy and carbs. We don’t consume a lot of it, but I do like some cheese with my dinner!

The recipes we sampled were Peruvian beef stir-fry, gingered turkey meatballs in lemongrass broth, and spicy chorizo and tomatillo chili with coconut and lime. The Peruvian beef was really good, and a hit with me and Bryan. The other two recipes had too many Thai-based and spicy foods that don’t agree with Bryan or Sophie. And at the time we tried Sun Basket (last fall), there weren’t many other non-exotic options. So unfortunately this one didn’t work for our family.

Sun Basket seems like a great option for adults, or families that want an easy way to eat organic, paleo, vegeterian or vegan options. Again, not bad, but we didn’t continue the subscription. That being said, I give Sun Basket the award for cutest packaging — I didn’t want to through the boxes away!

Sun Basket Peruvian beef

HELLO FRESH

This was my least favorite meal box services. The Hello Fresh meals I tried were bland, had very few ingredients. They were also dishes I could have easily made with my own recipes and would have tasted better. We tried were shrimp with lemon orzo (a recipe that I have made myself and tasted better) and steak with mango salsa and rice. While the steak was good, the portion was small and fed both me and Sophie. Thank goodness Bryan was not at home for that dinner because had I split it three ways, we would have been looking for more food to supplement dinner.

The Hello Fresh dinners could have used a bit more flavor and/or ingredients. While some of Blue Apron’s recipes are simple too; what makes them stand out are the spice blends used to add flavor. That was lacking with Hello Fresh.

I was also very turned off by the fact that Hello Fresh customer service was constantly calling me after I cancelled the service to find out what happened and persuade me to resubscribe.

Blue Apron summer corn salad

So those are my thoughts on Blue Apron, Plated, Sun Basket and Hello Fresh. I really want to try One Potato by Weelicious because I like their emphasis on family-friendly meals. But sadly, they don’t service Indiana … yet!

It’s a nice treat to be able to use a meal subscription service once or twice a month. If you’re at all curious, I encourage you to sign up for the free offering and see which ones you like.

Have you used any of these meal subscription services? Which is your favorite (or least favorite)? Is there another one I need to try?

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