I remember my dad talking about the golden hour when I was a kid. He was the photographer in our family, documenting everything we did with one of an ever-growing collection of cameras and camcorders. We lived a short freeway trip from the beach, and I understood that the golden hour was often at its finest near the water. My dad took pictures, and I wrote poems, so I tried to capture the golden hour in my notebook.
I was a quiet, shy kid who daydreamed a lot and filled ragged spiral notebooks with poems, using my special pen, a Bic wrapped in green florist’s tape with an artificial rose at the top. My mom had put a dropper of rose oil into the flower, so my notebook smelled like ink and roses. I smelled the flower and looked around me. What did the golden hour mean? To me it meant the warm-hued light spreading over the world as the sun spilled behind the ocean again. It meant butter color, velvet shadow, ladders of light leading up or down from the clouds. It meant a feeling that got trapped in my chest like a bird, because another day was ending and it was beautiful and sad at the same time.
Raising my own family, I get that bird-in-chest feeling a lot. It’s this sense of crushing gratitude, love, and wonder at my children’s innocence, their unfettered joy, the unfiltered feelings that pour from them without fear, combined with the weight of impermanence: babies don’t keep.
Golden hours in a house of three small children are more like golden minutes, and they’re sprinkled through long days full of many other qualities– frustration, fatigue, anger, worry, boredom. In our house, my husband Lyle is the family photographer. Where he once focused on landscapes, still lifes, and portraits of friends, he now turns his camera toward our family life. The gift of his photos is something I really treasure.
And, I’ve often felt intimidated to try my hand at snapping pictures myself. I’m at home with the kids most of the time, and there are so many moments I want to catch on film that often dissolve before I can grab the camera. I’ve been a stubbornly-analogue person for most of my life, but I recently got a smartphone with a good camera. I’ve been surprised by how quickly I can snap a photo that I actually like. It’s just on my phone, so it takes the pressure off.
Following some good advice from Ashlee Gadd in an Exhale Creativity resource, I started paying attention to where the light is, what time of day it’s most dramatic, and what it looks like in different parts of the house. This simple practice of noticing what the light does has been nothing short of magical. It’s become an exercise in mindfulness that feels playful and, well, light.
I can practice it in a stray moment when the soup is simmering, on my way to do a load of laundry. It draws my attention to the small and beautiful: a halo of unbrushed hair on my daughter’s head, my son’s bright blue bike making patterns with the shadows from the side gate, my husband’s silhouette as he walks the baby around to calm her in that dicey little half hour before her bedtime.
Little golden hours. A camera as a call to attention. A way to settle the wings in my chest, or maybe release them.
This post is part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to view the next post in this series “Illuminate”.
I haven’t written a post in over a month. I feel like I’ve been wringing every last bit of energy and time out of each day, and the truth is, most days there just hasn’t been much left of either. Each day dawns a little sooner, each night curves down a little later, and it seems like that should equal some spare change in the jar. Instead, we’re out planting ferns and groundcover in the backyard as dusk falls, finishing the second coat of paint in the basement bathroom, wiping the last counter and wondering how it could be 10 already.
Spring has opened all the little envelopes of the flowers. In this part of the world, the letters inside are nothing short of spectacular. One by one, we’re discovering the plants we’ve inherited from the hands who tended these gardens before us. Two daphne bushes in the corner of the drive, little clusters of pink and purple with a scent that stops you in your tracks. A pacific dogwood, taller and more reserved than its showier ornamental cousins: a few pale yellow blossoms here and there, like small clocks. The magnolia’s enormous blooms paper the grass like cartoon hearts, having blossomed before any leaves emerged. There’s a brash, magenta rhododendron out front, and a carpet of trilliums under the ferns out back. The tiny native irises we planted are already flowering, even though they’re only ankle-high.
Our own little Iris turned 4 months old. Already, I’m packing away the newborn clothes that stretch too tight on her busy, chubby legs. It’s going too fast, but I’m resting in the deep joy we’ve taken in her each day. Just about every day since she’s been born, Lyle or I have been teary-eyed with gratitude. I can’t believe we get to do this again, one of us will say. I’m so glad we have her.
Iris is intensely observant of her brother and sister, who have become experts at drawing out her elusive laugh. I love the way she looks at her world with expectation, ready to be delighted. My favorite parts of each day are the moments I get to sing to her before putting her down in her bassinet for her nap. She looks up at me so sweetly and calmly, sometimes babbling her own little song back to me, or just breaking into a quiet, open-mouthed smile. It’s hard to put her down, even though naptimes mean a chance for me to change out a load of laundry, make a snack for the big kids, tackle the pile of dishes or maybe, just maybe, get a little writing done.
There’s this thing I’ve been trying to write since February. It’s done, but it’s not done, and that bothers me. There’s more I want to say, something that’s not quite right, and I’m having trouble being patient. I’m nervous that the energy buzzing around these ideas will fade if I don’t move more quickly. Yet I know I can only do this work within the limitations of my body, the slower pace of our days, the demands of this season of mothering small children.
I’ve realized that for a long time, I’ve pushed myself to the max, and it’s tempting to keep doing that on days when I feel well. Coming to terms with the chronic migraine variant I live with has meant prioritizing real self-care: going to bed before 10, getting regular cardiovascular exercise, doing yoga and meditation, getting acupuncture once a week, and making time for prayer and rest and water during the day. Those things take time. So does being present with my kids. I can easily get caught up in clean-up all day long, and I’ve been trying to remember that it’s okay to leave the dishes and just play. Have some Barbie conversations with my oldest daughter. Push a toy car around the carpet with my son. Even watch a movie with them and snuggle on the couch, instead of using that time to frantically check something off the to-do list.
Iris had her 4-month vaccines this week and felt a little uncomfortable for a few days. She couldn’t rest for more than 30 minutes on her own. One day, she fell heavily asleep in my lap on the couch, and I just sat there watching her and looking out the window at the robins and sparrows. It seems like such a small, obvious thing, just slowing down. Just letting the weight of a sleeping child still my own limbs and mind. But it can be hard to slow down in spring, after a long pandemic winter, when it feels like everything and everyone is waking up.
Sometimes when I’m troubled by a writing project that isn’t moving at the pace I want it to, I can start to think I can’t do anything else until it’s done. No blog posts, no newsletter, no sewing project. No just-because poem. No meandering words in my journal. It can feel like any other use of my creative energy is wasteful, or procrastination in disguise.
But I think sometimes this effort at discipline is plain fear, dressed up as diligence. All it creates is rigidity, a stinginess that doesn’t help. It takes the joy out of creating, and blocks the flow of energy that, ironically, would help me get unstuck and finish the thing I’m obsessing over.
There are a some good reasons why writing is hard right now (I can think of three very small, cute ones who live with me). There are some good reasons for not writing, for spending some time in a backyard hammock, or holding a baby chick in the cup of my hand. (It’s true! We didn’t think home felt chaotic enough, so we brought home six baby chicks!) For putting down what’s hard and just writing, sewing a tiny dress, or messing around with the camera on my phone when the light is good, while stirring a pot of soup from an interesting recipe I haven’t tried, even if my kids don’t eat it.
Sometimes the only thing to do when I “can’t” write is to just write.
These are long days for parents. Some are harder than others. Even on our best days, my husband and I both look forward to those precious few hours after the kids are in bed when we can catch up, unwind and enjoy a little quiet before going to bed, only to do it all over again the next day. We’ve been trying out different things to smooth over the predictably chaotic transitions we all find challenging each day: waking up, getting dinner on the table, and going to bed.
We are experimenting with simple “morning invitations” to keep the kids occupied during our pre-breakfast/ pre-coffee stumble. It doesn’t happen every morning and the activities are very simple. We’re just focusing on getting in a habit of setting something up the night before, as a gift to our next-morning selves. When Lyle gets home in the afternoon, he takes the kids outside to play or does a math/science activity with our kindergartener, while I take a walk alone. At 5, the kids get to watch a show while one of us makes dinner. Since I’m slowing down here at 29 weeks, it’s often Lyle who cooks while I lie down or do some stretching. So my contribution lately has been recommitting to a meal plan, making a list, and shopping for all the ingredients once a week.
I will be honest. I do not love meal-planning. I often find it overwhelming and repetitive, and it can be frustrating to spend time planning and preparing meals only to throw much of it in the compost when our kids eat around the vegetables and just eat the starchy, cheesy bits. The title for this post could easily be a McSweeney’s prompt, as the chasm between the plan and the reality is so very wide sometimes.
To reframe it as a sustainable practice for our family, I’m trying to embrace meal-planning as something we do in the service of bigger goals and values: cultivating a calm home and connecting together, however briefly, at the dinner table as a family. It’d be nice if the kids ate up all of what we served them, but that’s not the most important thing– though I wince at their uneaten food when so many go hungry.
After reading Ellyn Satter’s book a few years back, I’ve tried to remind myself that I’m in charge of putting healthy, balanced meals on the table for my kids, and they’re in charge of deciding how much of it to put in their bodies. That is a tall order some days. It’s really tough to resist cajoling them into one more bite, or taking it personally when they don’t like something I’ve worked hard on. But I don’t want the dinner table to be a battle field, and I want my kids to grow up knowing what feels good in their own bodies. I want to respect that knowing. Taking a page from Satter’s book, we don’t prepare separate or substitute meals for the kids, but we almost always serve bread or toast on the side, so even if they refuse to eat the main meal, I know they won’t go to bed hungry.
I thought I would share my progress here on the blog occasionally. This way I can make some notes on the kinds of things my kids like to eat, and get them into our weekly rotation more often. And maybe it can serve as a shortcut for another weary mom or dad out there, scouring the internet for ideas. I will list this week’s meals and link to some recipes below.
So far, I’ve observed a few things about what works for our family:
Meals need to be simple and low-prep, no more than an hour from cutting board to table, unless they involve some fairly hands-off time in the oven.
In this season of budgeting, small children, and third-trimester heartburn, light meals focused on vegetables and grains work best.
When I feel stuck or uninspired, there are two family magazines with unfussy recipes that usually do the trick: Parents and Good Housekeeping.
One-pot and sheet-pan meals often end up being crowd-pleasers.
Sunday– Roasted vegetables and rice. Kids ate: most. Notes: This was a non-recipe meal using up the veggies in the fridge before grocery day. Sweet potato, carrot, beets, potatoes, broccoli, and cherry tomatoes, chopped small and roasted with olive oil and herbs at 425 for about 25 min. Served with brown rice from the rice cooker.
Monday– Pumpkin Rice Casserole with Roasted Vegetables. Kids ate: most. Notes: This was a meal I just made up based on what I had left in the fridge. I was pleasantly surprised the kids liked this, and the leftovers made for good lunches the next day.
Tuesday*– Potato kale soup. Kids ate: less than half. Notes: Served with par-baked french bread from the supermarket and a green salad from our garden. I was disappointed the kids didn’t seem to like this very much, but kale does have a strong flavor. This was a hearty, blended soup that we doubled to help feed a friend going through a hard time. So even though my kids didn’t eat much of it, I celebrated it as a win for meal-planning: it helped me give a little extra during a time when I often feel like I don’t have enough time, energy, or kindness to share. *grocery day.
Wednesday– Rotisserie chicken with orzo, zucchini, and cherry tomatoes. Kids ate: most. Notes: Served with a green salad from our garden. This was really good, and relatively easy to prepare with pre-cooked chicken. I used to avoid prepared foods to save money but recently have been experimenting with buying a rotisserie chicken every so often. It has surprised me by being more budget-friendly than I might have thought. Served with bread and a veggie or salad, it can make for a complete meal during busy times when we might otherwise order expensive take-out. In this case, we had plenty left to use in another recipe later in the week, and by simmering the carcass overnight we also made a quart of nutritious bone broth.
Thursday– Sheet pan grilled cheese with apples. Kids ate: less than half. Notes: Served with cups of leftover soup and a green salad. This was a new technique for us, kind of a DIY panini press in the oven, and we ended up cooking them a little too long. A good way to cook grilled cheese for a crowd, this helps you spend less time over the stove, but you really have to watch so they don’t burn. The kids may have eaten more if they weren’t so well-done. 😉
Friday– Quinoa-stuffed acorn squash. Kids ate: Less than half. Notes: Served with toast and a green salad. I didn’t have high hopes that they’d eat this. For some reason, stuffed veggies aren’t a big hit with my two, but I keep exposing them to these dishes because they are affordable, nutritious, and some of my favorite things to eat during the cold months. We made carmelized cashews for the salad with sliced bosc pear, and that was a big hit at least.
Saturday– Chicken and butternut squash enchiladas. Kids ate: most. Notes: I used this recipe as a template in order to make a double batch. I needed to make one dairy and gluten free to freeze and deliver to my friend next week, and one with regular cheese for our kids, and both without beans because they tend to make me sick. I also made my own enchilada sauce because onions and garlic gross me out during pregnancy. So, lots of adaptations. You could definitely make this dish more quickly and affordably with store-bought shortcuts. A good weekend meal since it’s more involved to prepare.
What are your favorite meal-planning tricks, habits, or discoveries?
This recipe could also be titled Day Before Grocery Run Casserole, or What’s in the Fridge Surprise. It was Monday at 4:30, after a long day of homeschooling and potty-training, and in the fridge we had some pureed roasted pumpkin from making bread, cooked rice and roasted veggies from the night before, and not a whole lot else. After searching online for “pumpkin rice cheesy casserole” and not finding anything, I decided to improvise, and share the results with some future Googler of odd casseroles. I’m not going to wax poetic about it, as most food blogs do, because this is not in fact a food blog. This is the blog of a writer and mother with all-day morning sickness, who needed to get something palatable in the oven for her family so she could take a walk, alone.
This follows a basic casserole formula I remember from growing up: starch+ veggie + binder (egg) + cheese and breadcrumbs (a great time to use up the heels of sandwich bread your kids won’t eat.) It’s mild, comforting, and satisfying– great for hungry, picky eaters on a cold day. Feel free to experiment with those components, and adjust the seasonings to give it your own spin. I used rosemary, thyme, and parsley to give it fall flavor, but you could change up the spices depending on what leftover vegetables you’re working with.
Then get it in the oven, set the timer, and let your partner watch the kids and the dinner while you take a walk.
Pumpkin Rice Casserole with Roasted Veggies
Serves: 8 Prep time: 10 min Cook time: 30 min
Ingredients 2 cups fresh pumpkin puree (or any cooked winter squash) 1 egg 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese 1 tsp salt 3 tsps herbs of choice 1/2 cup chicken broth 2 cups cooked rice 2 cups roasted vegetables 2 slices bread, cubed 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan 1 tbsp butter, plus more for greasing pan
Preheat oven to 350. Butter the bottom and sides of a 9 x 13 glass casserole dish. In a large bowl, combine pumpkin, egg, cheddar, salt, herbs, and chicken broth. Whisk well. Fold in rice and vegetables. Press into greased casserole dish and pat smooth. Sprinkle bread crumbs evenly over top, and dot with butter. Sprinkle evenly with Parmesan cheese. Bake for 30 minutes, until breadcrumbs are golden brown and casserole edges are crisp.
Serve with a green salad. We did mixed greens and a dijon vinaigrette with sliced bosc pear, shredded carrots, and toasted cashews. Bon appetit.
Maybe all the Frozen 2 has gotten to me. Our nearly-five-year-old is as Elsa-obsessed as the next little kid, and we’ve had both soundtracks on repeat since December, with accelerated listening as the pandemic has grown. Even our 2-year-old, who is barely speaking in sentences, can confidently bust out with “Let it go! Let it gooooo….”
But it’s the quiet song in the next film, “The Next Right Thing,” that I keep returning to, every day in this limbo world of the pandemic. (Is it stuck in your head now, too? Sorry/not sorry.) I’m not on social media, I check the news once in the morning and once in the evening, and I delete most of the daily deluge of “how we’re responding to COVID” emails.
Maybe it sounds cheesy but right now the most I can do is the next right thing. All I can control is how I respond right now, using my best understanding of the information that’s available in this moment.
What good will it do me to wonder what if, what’s next, how long? I’m trying to figure out how to get through the next hour without fear clamping its tight, sweaty hands around my throat. With a chronic illness I’ve just barely gotten a handle on that is triggered by stress and anxiety, it’s a matter of survival, for me, to learn how to choose not to dwell on things I can’t control.
I get that not everyone has that luxury, and I am grateful to the trained professionals who make “What if” and “How long” their daily work. As a whole, at the level of city, state, and national leadership, we do need to ask those questions in order to end the pandemic.
But as an individual, as a student and the mother of two young children, my main job is to stay healthy and sane enough to keep going, and help my family stay healthy and sane. I’ll even be as bold as to hope we might still thrive in spite of the dramatic changes to our daily lives. If “What if” has a role in my life right now, it needs to be one that serves my little family, and supports those goals.
What if we feel our fear and our sadness alongside joy at the beauty of the spring day outside, alongside our pleasure at seeing the familiar faces of preschool friends on the laptop screen? What if we notice when we’re getting grumpy and say it out loud, stomp our feet together until we’re laughing, and ask for an extra hug? What if we make it a habit to do something little and nice for someone every day, and see how it makes us feel? What if we don’t feel like getting out of bed, but we get up and get dressed anyway?
Today we begin week two of… what do we call it? Self-quarantine, sheltering in place, social-distancing? Oregon just made it official this morning, but my family’s been sheltering in place for a week now. I’m working and going to school remotely, while home with the kids, and my husband goes to work in his shop. (He runs a small manufacturing business that can thankfully still practice under the new guidelines.) Occasionally we have shouted conversations with the neighbor across the street. We take giant steps to the side when we pass people on the path at the park up the street. And we make daily Facetime, Hangouts, and Zoom dates with friends and family across the city and around the country. It’s working okay for now, but I definitely have moments of overwhelm, every day. It’s challenging sometimes to stay in touch when we mostly, of course, talk about what’s happening related to the pandemic.
Today is week two, but it’s also noon. So my kids and I check the daily schedule we taped to the wall, to give us something to anchor to, stay grounded when the bottom has dropped out from under us. It’s just a colorful piece of computer paper, with drawings my kids can “read,” and a paperclip on the side that my daughter can slide down to the next activity on the list. This morning we’ve had free play, some movement (yoga), and outdoor play (backyard sandbox digging and a walk around the block.) At noon, it’s time to clean up toys, wash hands again, and help make lunch. Then we’ll rest and do some coloring or painting, and head outside again to pull weeds or work on the snap pea trellis up in the garden.
Although this age range has its own challenges, I’m mostly grateful that my kids are young, and we’re not worried about keeping the on track academically. I am trying to keep them from asking me 10,009 times a day if it’s time to eat a snack or watch a show. I’m trying to keep myself from losing it.
There are so many ways to move through the impossible. This is what’s helping us, for now. It has been a helpful reminder when we don’t know what to do. All we can do is the next right thing.
Little Idea Bank
Art Activities, Week 1, from The Artful Parent, by Jean Van’t Hul
Monday: Paint a Song; Q-Tip pointillism
Tuesday: Draw cars and houses, mail to friends, ask them to draw people and mail back
Wednesday: Fingerpaint and cut out a banner
Thursday: Bake teddy bear bread for dinner
Friday: Make and play with homemade playdough