get rid of clutter: it makes kids happier, too

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My almost two-year-old is entering his defiant phase.

“OK, CP, time to clean up!” I say after dinner. “You’re in charge of the Legos.”

“No,” he says with a smile, and then turns in circles, arms out like an airplane. Or he walks away and grabs a toy car and starts pretending it’s zooming on the furniture. And then grins at me with that infuriating glimmer.

“CP,” I say with a sterner tone, pointing at the rug. “Legos.”

This happened three nights in a row. Three nights ago, when his exasperated brother tried to boss CP into cleaning, CP took a heavy wooden car and hit CM in the mouth. CM wailed; I put CP on the couch, and he giggled at me when I told him how unhappy I was and we don’t hit in this house. (I later told A. it was time for me to read up on toddler discipline again, because CP’s personality is so different from CM’s. I default to this woman’s advice, and I’m also going to pull out some of the books on my shelf.)

Two nights ago, when CP wasn’t cleaning after several prompts, A. and I decided to put the Legos away. He put them on top of the fridge, so CP could see them and ask for them.

Yesterday morning,  CP was wandering the house.

“Mama, I can’t find the Legos anywhere,” he said in whiny voice, hands up-turned.

“CP, you didn’t clean up last night,” I said. “You don’t get to play with them for a few days.”

He cried for a moment and then said, bottom lip out: “Ohhhh.” It’s tricky because I’m not sure he really gets it yet.

But here’s what I noticed. With the Legos out of sight, the boys got along better. They played in a huge cardboard box we’ve had for two weeks that we turned into a “house.” They giggled and pounded on the box like it was a bongo. Then they jumped into a toy bin and pretended it was a hot air balloon. Later in the morning, I took them on a hike in the Sandia Foothills and they walked on what was left of the snow and jumped in the mud, and CP made up a song that went, “CM, I loooove you.”

The boys don’t need much to be happy. We’re all about simple play. We want to foster their independence, creativity and love of nature. Sometimes the best idea, even though it can feel hard in the moment when they’re upset, is to simply put those toys away.

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a few of my favorite short stories

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I’m that person who subscribes to The New Yorker and has trouble throwing it away. I usually read one article per issue — I’m drawn to the crime, health and international stories — and then I shove it under my nightstand. I’ll dust the top of the stack now and then, until it’s either time to move or I’m on a short-story kick and then I’ll sit in a scattered pile of magazines and read the fiction.

I remember vividly sitting on the dirty carpet in a townhouse I shared with a roommate near Adams Morgan in D.C. It was a late Sunday summer morning nearly five years ago, and I was clearing out my New Yorkers because I was moving in with A. I was about 20 weeks pregnant, and I had to go to the bathroom, but I started reading “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow and I couldn’t put it down. The bathroom was down the hall — it didn’t even occur to me to bring the magazine with me. I was rooted in that spot, captivated by the man who didn’t mean to leave his wife, but ended up his attic after a long day and fell asleep and then, when it was daylight, couldn’t get himself to go in the house.

I was totally bewildered by the situation I had created for myself. I can’t claim that I was thinking rationally. But I actually felt that it would be a mistake to walk into my house and explain the sequence of events that had led me to spend the night in the garage attic. Diana would have been up till all hours, pacing the floor and worrying what had happened to me. My appearance, and her sense of relief, would enrage her. Either she would think that I had been with another woman or, if she did believe my story, it would strike her as so weird as to be a kind of benchmark in our married life.

It’s not a short-short story, either — it’s nearly 12,000 words. But I remember that feeling of being “wow’d” by Doctorow’s talent that pulled into a made-up man’s psyche.

I think about this story when I try to write — what worked? Why is this story so brilliant to me? Images of this story and a few others are still seared in my mind. I re-read them now and then to glean something from their craft.

Here’s my list of my favorite short stories, as of now:

I’m always looking for more: What are some of your favorite short stories?

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live like it’s your last year

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I’ve heard the mantra before: Imagine it’s your last year on earth, and you’ll live more deeply. It’s a message that keeps resonating: It’s now in The New York Times most popular stories, “To Be Happier, Start Thinking More About Your Death,” by Arthur C. Brooks.

He writes: “The secret is not simply a resolution to stop wasting time. … It is to find a systematic way to raise the scarcity of time to our consciousness.”

I actually think about this quite a bit. Perhaps because it’s a fear of mine (dying and/or losing A.), I’m drawn to stories of people dying young. On Facebook, I was friends with people who knew White House adviser Jacob Brewer, who was struck and killed by a car while on a charity bicycle ride. A lovely woman I knew in high school (though not well), who was a year younger than me, died of cancer this fall. She had three young boys. And I’m embarrassed to admit I spent hours trying to find out what kind of cancer could take the life of a woman who just had a baby (the answer, I’m pretty sure: cervical). And this tribute by a woman who lost her 37-year-old doctor husband to lung cancer (he has a forthcoming book out), was one of the most beautiful things I’ve read in a  while.

So I’ve been thinking: What would I do differently if I knew this was my last year? And I can’t say that I’d change much. I’m not working right now so that I can be with my young boys and take care of the house so we’re all happier and not stressed. I’d probably make sure I worked on Curtis’ baby book and write a few tributes to the boys, so they know what I value and how much I love them. I’d probably try to get to a few places that I’ve always wanted to see (Turkey, Galapagos Islands, Argentina). And I’d connect with friends. But other than that, I’d squeeze A. and my boys every day and tell them I love them. Thankfully, I already do that.

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5 things that made me happy this week

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For me, it’s often the simple pleasures that flood my brain with serotonin. Discovering a new favorite song. Devouring a treat. Getting huge hugs around my neck from my boys. And … relief. Here are five things that made me happy this week — reflecting on them revives and reinforces the feelings.

  1. Health. This week, we found out that our next baby is healthy. (Yep, we’re going to be a family of five!) We passed the first trimester screening, which was an incredible relief. I’m 38, and the baby is due July 2, when I’ll be 39. So the geneticist at the University of Mexico, who last week sat me down in her office and listed in a grave tone all of the age-related disorders the baby could have, said on my voicemail (bless her): “We got your results back and it’s good news. Give me a call. Again, it’s good news.”
  2. Music. I’ve been spending time in the evenings going through NPR Music’s favorite list from 2015. “Get Up” by Caitlin Canty, “The Eye” by Brandi Carlisle and “24 Frames” by Jason Isbell are now rolling on repeat.
  3. Sweet Treat. In one of the many “how to cut sugar” articles I read this week, a food writer said she often turns to dates stuffed with almond butter. Can I just tell you I’m on my second container of dates this week?
  4. A Dear Friend. A friend from college who lives in Takoma Park, Md., was in Albuquerque for one night for a conference on Wednesday. She has three kids — twin 6-year-old boys and a 3-year-old daughter. We had dinner at Vinaigrette in Old Town before heading to Nob Hill for dessert. Conversation flowed nonstop about psychology (she has a Phd in developmental psych), parenting, fears and hopes. Happiness is spending time with friends you love and trust and have known for years.
  5. Short Stories. Now that I’m out of my first trimester fog where all I wanted to do is curl up in a ball and sleep, I’m revisiting short stories I started last year and the year before. And I’m thrilled to find that they’re not terrible. I plan to revive some, and brainstorm some new ones.

What happy moments have you had this week?

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my best books of 2015

I’m that person who scours the best-of book lists all year long, and, in doing so, I like to find personal blogs with lists of favorites, too, such as on Elephantine. Rachel is an aspiring writer/blogger in Seattle who offers monthly book recommendations, and they usually resonate.

Among my friends, I often get texts or emails in that vein. Last month, I received an email from a close friend in Michigan: “Any suggestions for feel good short stories? Reminders that there are happy, good people in the world? To help me get back to reading more??”

The text came about a week after the San Bernardino shootings. My friend, stretched thin lately, is a mother to two under 3 years old, works full-time, recently moved houses and her husband travels to the West Coast frequently.

I shot her a few suggestions, and she wrote back, “Thanks, I knew I was consulting the expert.”

I love feeling like I can help. So, hopefully this list will inspire someone who needs a good book recommendation (and yes, I know these lists usually come out in December, but better late to the game than never). Many of these — including “Our Souls at Night,” “Still Alice,” “Nightingale” — brought me to tears. I was drawn into all of them, often neglecting my husband in the evenings: “I’m going to go read.” I also read a few blockbusters, like “Girl on a Train,” but to me, the writing wasn’t strong enough to merit this list.

Here are my top nine books that I read in 2015, in no particular order:

  • “Our Souls at Night” by Kent Haruf
  • “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
  • “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova
  • “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
  • “Circling the Sun” by Paula McClain
  • “The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah
  • “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel
  • “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas
  • “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante (I have book no. 2 on my nightstand)

Happy reading!

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rejuvinated and inspired

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Every year around this time, I have a natural, internal monologue about what I could be doing better with my time. What do I want to accomplish? What is important to me? It’s a check-in with myself that happens after we take down the tree and the outside lights, after our parents board their plane and while I’m scrubbing the bathroom floors and washing the towels and sheets. The house is quiet and my mind has space to confront my longings. I try to focus on living in the moment, and I also know that it takes training — otherwise my mind wanders to the anxiety-inducing what-ifs. What I’ve settled on this year are not resolutions, because, like promises, I believe those are meant to be broken.
Last year my list contained a short to-do list of what I wanted to make (a few of which I never did), and then a brain dump that overwhelmed me. Here is what I’ve settled on this year.

  1. Less Screen Time: Even though we got rid of our TV, I still spend too much time on my phone — specifically my three go-to sites: The New York Times, FaceBook and Instagram. Sometimes, I find myself scrolling mindlessly, often not finishing articles, or diverging to parenting articles or mindless feel-good videos — and often I’m left with a headache. I plan to work on putting down my phone before this happens — and picking up my pen.
  2. More Writing: I haven’t been productive regarding my personal projects recently (and will explain why in a later post), but now I feel inspired to write more and really focus on the craft. That means lots of practice. Setting aside time to write. And studying the masters. I printed out two of my favorite essays: “My Christmas in New York” by Harper Lee and “A Sudden Illness” by Laura Hillenbrand, so that I can read them again and again and understand their structures. This means getting back to blogging, too.
  3. A Pottery Plan: I’m still on the fence as to whether I want to start a business, but I do get a thrill from selling, so I’m debating opening an Etsy shop. The real question is: Do I want to throw a few things on there that I’ve already made, or shall I actually create a business plan and persona and style beforehand? I don’t know yet. I want to explore this.
  4. More Exploration: Since it turned frigid outside, we haven’t gone on many trips, but exploring gives me a thrill. The second weekend in December, we drove to Taos for a night and stayed at the Old Taos Guesthouse B&B. We booked a suite with three rooms — a living area and two bedrooms. The living area was small, tasteful and intimate with a white couch, wicker chair and a gas fireplace. After we put the boys to bed, A. and I stayed up chatting for a few hours and I felt connected and happy. Breakfast the next morning was homemade granola, green chili omelettes, blueberry bread and rich coffee. I’m looking forward to seeking out trips to more of New Mexico, and also Arizona and Colorado.
  5. More Positive Thinking, Gratitude: I’ve been tired and grumpy and missing my “me” time lately. I am grateful that I can be home with my little ones — now 4 and almost 2 — but I have moments where I just want more time for myself. Here are the thoughts that I have run through my head recently: “Our house is too cold”; “I’m tired of coming up with dinners”; “I’m in a rut with going to the same places with the kids”; “I miss my friends.” Sure, that’s all true, but I plan to alter my thinking to: “I’ll cuddle under a blanket, make some kick-ass hot chocolate and use the space heater to beat this cold”; “I’ll go to Smitten Kitchen and Green Kitchen Stories and BBC Good Food and get inspired”; “I’ll seek out some new places — why not go to Santa Fe for the day?”; “I’ll book a trip to see my friends.” Positive talk makes me happy. (Also? This kid, below.)

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a realization: albuquerque is not our ‘forever place’

I surprised myself — and A. — when I was in the car with my father-in-law in North Carolina driving from the airport to his house for Thanksgiving. “How do you like Albuquerque so far?” he asked.

“It’s OK,” I said, my voice lilting upward. “It’s nice to have places to eat out and stuff to do with the kids, but I feel landlocked. And there’s something missing.”

“Is it too suburban?” asked my FIL.

“I’m not sure if that’s it, but yes. And believe or not, I do miss the mountains in California [the Eastern Sierras] and the wide open space.”

When we visited in May to house-hunt, I was smitten and had a brief moment where I thought perhaps Albuquerque could be our “forever place” (knowing realistically that A. loves his job and we’re moving back to D.C. in a few years). The mountains are right out my doorstep. The real estate is cheap. Traffic is easy. And there’s a lot to explore in New Mexico and up into Colorado. But now, five months in, I know that it’s not our forever place. And I’m at peace with that. In fact, it will probably make me live a little deeper  — knowing my time here is short.

It’s hard to say exactly what is missing. Part of it is its suburban, sprawling feel and closed off people (not entirely, but for the most part), so I don’t see an easy avenue to creating community. I’ve met some lovely people, and there are friendly smiles at C’s preschool, but I haven’t quite hit that stride where I feel hopeful about local friendships turning long-lasting. I know that takes time, and I have to be patient, so patient. But it’s been hard for me, and it makes me miss my far-away friends more intensely. Plus, even if I develop community in the time we’re here, I’m still quite sure this isn’t our forever place.

So with that realization, I’m shifting my mindset about what I can get out of my time here. Instead of longing for community, I’m focusing on enjoying the mountains (I love that I can be on a trail in five minutes), how much we explore and that I don’t have to work because Albuquerque is affordable. Also, I am continually trying to stay in the moment with my deep love for A. and my tiny, adorable littles who won’t be little for that long — their cuddles, sweet voices and giggles and excitement for the mundane. “LOOK MAMA, THERE’S A TAXI!!!!!”

So although I’m missing community, I can build it slowly, but really turn my attention to family, being a tourist, creating — and staying thankful.

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how I’m spending every spare minute

You know you found a passion when you spend all of your free time dedicated to it. For me, unsurprisingly, it’s pottery. My “shop” — the shed in our backyard — is in full force. I go in it daily. This weekend, A. laid bricks for a path to it through our backyard.

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I picked up my first batch of 34 pieces two weeks ago, which I had fired at New Mexico Clay. I was surprised by the results; it was completely different from anything I’ve tried before. I experimented with four clays (three stoneware, one porcelain), eight glazes and, for the first time, I had to paint on the glaze instead of dip it, which gave me wildly different results than what I’m used to. The hottest temperature I can fire at New Mexico Clay is Cone 6 in an electric kiln, by contrast my friend and teacher Lois in Ridgecrest, Calif., fired at Cone 10 in a gas kiln.

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Each time I sit down at the wheel — relaxed, focused and listening to NPR One — I see progress. The walls on my pots are more even. The feet aren’t as chunky. And I can throw bigger and higher. The feeling is incredible. When I sit down to write, I work through problems in my mind, and I have breakthroughs, too, but for me working with something physical is more immediate, and often more gratifying.

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I’m toying with buying a kiln, but I’m not sure I can yet because we’re renting and not equipped for the size I would want to buy. But it would be nice to make my own glazes, test tiles and really immerse myself in this art more fully than I already am. Someday I’ll make it happen, I’m sure of it. But for now, I’m trying one glaze combination at a time and seeing what I can create. Slowly, surely and patiently.

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all moved in to our new home in new mexico

So, we moved. From one desert to another. From a dusty remote town at 2,000 feet to a small(ish) city at almost 6,000 feet. I stopped working at the end of April and we’ve been traveling and exploring and enjoying the summer. The warm, relaxed pool and fresh tomatoes in North Carolina. Fireflies, carpets of green grass and the sounds of trains rushing by in Michigan. Spray parks and sushi in Chicago. And now we’re settling into New Mexico, exploring pueblos (cave dwellings!) and the Biopark and the Rio Grande.

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I’m putting pictures on the walls, thinking about what’s next and looking for friends. A woman down the road who’s a writer with two small kids came by last night — the kids were chasing each other in circles and giggling uncontrollably, while she and I drank a bottle of wine and chatted without taking a breath. The cool air blew through the screen doors and through the chaos, I felt light. A few weeks ago, I met another woman and her two boys, 3 and 10 months, at story time at the International Balloon Museum and we’ve been meeting up routinely at the Natural History Museum, the children’s museum, the aquarium.

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Our new house has turtles that have lived here for 15 years (the photo tells the story). Wide open space, an expansive deck and lots of light.

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And two workshops — one for me, and one for A. With electricity and lights and enough space for my electric pottery wheel I bought on Craigslist last week. Over the weekend, I bought clay and have been thinking about it ever since. What tools do I need? Where should I take classes? Should I sell any of this? What if I actually tried to start a business?

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I also bought boxes to grow vegetables, and the trays to grow seeds — carrots, beets and spinach. I’ve never gardened, so I find it daunting, but I plan to start this week. As the young bearded guy at the gardening store said when I sheepishly told him that I haven’t a clue: “You gotta start somewhere.” I also have a few essays rolling around in my head and the thought of writing them and selling them also feels hard.

But isn’t that what makes life worth it? Pushing yourself, trying new things, growing, learning? Yes, I definitely think so.

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managing the letdown at the end of a pottery class

Whenever I take a pottery class, I feel an intense letdown when it’s over. Where we live in the desert, I can only take a class every few months — so I know that I won’t start up again for what feels like a long time.

At the end of each session, after all of the pieces are fired in the gas kiln, my teacher holds a potluck party at the studio. Everyone brings a guest, we drink wine and we walk around and look at the finished results. We discuss what worked and what didn’t. The day of the party, I get so anxious about seeing the pieces, I have to train my mind to think about something else. And as soon as I see how they turned out, I want to start creating again. Immediately.

My last class ended Tuesday, and this time, somehow, the letdown feels more intense. I learned how to make a lamp, where I threw two separate pieces that totaled about 10 pounds and attached them on the wheel. A. says he’ll wire it when the shade arrives from World Market this week. I also finally got comfortable making mugs — I made nine of them, five of which I love.

When we move, I’ll be able to take classes consecutively, or throw from home and glaze and fire at a community kiln. But for now, I’m trying to manage my latest letdown — and dream about what I can make in the future.

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