Leftover Rice

White rice is one of those things that’s just never quite the same leftover. I love white rice and we generally eat it at least once a week, often more frequently than that. We have a rice cooker, and it’s a fuss free,  inexpensive, and gluten free starch. It also goes with just about anything.

But what to do with the leftovers? Of course, you can just have “leftover night” and pull all the leftovers out of the fridge for everyone to pick something to microwave. I do my fair share of that.

But if you want to take it up a notch, or if you just don’t like microwaved leftover rice, here’s a few ideas you might not have thought of.

Fried rice

Fried rice is a staple at Chinese restaurants, but it’s not too hard to make something similar at home. You just need to saute some carrots and onions, maybe some peas, in oil until they are well cooked. Add the right seasonings–I like pepper, garlic, and ginger– lots of soy sauce and a little sugar, and some finely chopped meat. Then you throw your leftover rice in, stir till it’s warm, and voila! A quick one-dish meal.

Rice pudding

Rice pudding is a surprisingly delicious dessert that uses basic staples and is pretty hard to mess up. And it’s a fantastic way to use leftover rice. If you turn your leftover rice into rice pudding, you can serve it in wine glasses at a nice dinner party and no one will ever guess that it’s Wednesday night’s supper leftovers. (Yes, I have done this.)

Here’s the recipe I generally use.

Rice casserole

There’s a lot of nice rice casserole recipes, but the general idea behind them is that you take some meat, some veggies, some sauce and some leftover rice, mix it together or layer it into a baking pan, sprinkle cheese over it, and bake it till it’s hot and the cheese is getting golden. It’s a great way to use leftover meat and vegetables too.

Chicken salsa rice casserole is one of my favorites.

(incidentally, this makes a fabulous freezer meal.)

For this, you chop up some cooked chicken meat and layer it in a pan lasagna-style with leftover rice, cheese, and a sauce made of half salsa and half sour cream. Top with more cheese and bake. It is fast and easy and very satisfying. Don’t skimp on the sauce if you want it to be moist and delicious.

Eat it with bananas

I know, it probably sounds weird. The first time I ever heard of this was when my eighth grade teacher said it was good. My classmates and I, being typical middle schoolers, mostly looked at her like she’d suggested we all grow extra heads. But about fifteen years later, I suddenly decided to try it. And it was as good as she said.

Here’s what you do. Put some leftover rice in a bowl. Peel a banana and mash it up in there with a fork. Now you have a banana rice mixture. Sprinkle cinnamon over it, pour some milk in, and eat it like a cheaper, healthier version of cold cereal. I enjoy it occasionally as a bedtime snack.

 

I am sure I have only scratched the surface of what can be done with leftover rice. Do you have any favorite ideas?

Invisible Storage

I’m a big fan of minimalism and decluttering. I love empty floor space and blank walls, and I agonize over gift choices because I don’t want to give a friend anything that will just become clutter. I even have trouble buying things that I actually want, just because they are things… And things take up space.

But as it turns out, life, and especially family life, requires stuff. Lots of stuff. Things you really do need to keep around, like winter blankets during the summer, clothes that your kids will grow into, the supplies for your hobby (for me that means lots and lots of fabric and thread and ribbon), your kid’s toys and books, and the books your kid will want to read when he’s older….
Maybe your house comes equipped with plenty of closets, attics, and cabinets for all your storage needs. If it does, then lucky you!
If not, here’s a few ideas for hiding storage around your home so that you can keep the things you need without having piles of stuff laying around your living room, or piles of cardboard boxes permanently stacked in your bedroom.

Storage beds

There’s a few different ways of using your bed to hide storage. The most basic (and ugly) method is just to tuck those cardboard boxes or plastic totes under the bed. If you have a bed skirt, no one ever needs to know that under it you have sizes 3 months to 3 years boys’ clothes, three totes of fabric, and your entire set of oil painting supplies.
If you want to take it up a notch (and not have to slither around on your stomach next time your kid outgrows a size of clothes) there are under-bed drawers on wheels that work well on hard floors. When you want something, you just roll the drawer out and get it. It’s like a Captain’s bed, but not built in. Though built in storage beds are pretty cool too!

If you have a thick carpet in your bedroom, or a very small space so that your bed has to be against the wall, pull out drawers are not your best option. Then what you really need is a set up where instead of a box spring, you have a hinged box under your mattress. You can buy them ready made, or it can be a fun DIY project too. My husband and I made one for a twin bed and it’s been really nice. It gives you quite a bit of storage space, and it’s pretty easy to access.

Living room storage

Marie Kondo says that everything should have a place. And that place should be as near to where it will be used as possible. And some things get used in the living room. I like having a few extra blankets, some toys, and some books hiding in my living room. (Sadly, they are more likely to end up all over the floor than neatly tucked away, but knowing that there is actually a place for them to live at least makes me feel better.)
Bookshelves full of books are fine in almost any room, but it can be harder to find places for things like blankets, toys and games–things that will be used in the living room.

Here’s a couple of ideas for hiding your storage in plain sight.

Under the sofa

Sofas often have a few inches of concealed space underneath which has a habit of swallowing your kid’s shoes and toys and the book you were reading a moment ago. A way you can take advantage of that space would be to get some shallow plastic totes and put toys or games in them. Then all you have to do is shove them underneath and the sofa’s skirt covers it up.
Of course, not all sofas have skirts, so sometimes you have to get more creative.

Multi-purpose furniture

One of my all time favorite pieces of furniture is the storage ottoman. It looks just like any other footstool or ottoman, but you can store things inside it. Some of the really cool ones double as a coffee or end table as well.
I did once hear someone suggest string stacks of emergency canned food in your living room with a board on top instead of a coffee table, but I wouldn’t recommend it. If you must prep for an apocalypse, I suggest the basement. Dead storage–storage of things that are accessed only rarely–has no place in your living room.
Other concealed storage options for the living room include end tables with cabinets or drawers in them. But try to only keep living room things in the living room.

Storage spaces

When looking for more storage space, though, the first place to look is in the places that are designed for storing things: closets, pantries, attics, cabinets, etc.
So before deciding that you need to get a bed with drawers, or replace a favorite piece of furniture with a more versatile one, why not first see if you’re storing things that have outlived their usefulness, and then, once you’ve decided what needs to stay, examine your closets and cabinets to see if the storage space you already have is actually used efficiently?

Often closets have a lot of wasted space near the ceiling. It’s a pain to get to, but if you’re storing something you don’t need to get at very often, but will most likely need again–for me, that would be newborn size baby clothes–that’s okay. Installing an extra shelf up high in a closet will often make the closet much more useful.
Cabinets are sometimes the same way. Adding a shelf will increase the surface area on which you can set things.
You can make drawers much more efficient by putting in dividers, or just changing the way you stack things.
I adopted something similar to the Marie Kondo method of folding shirts, and discovered that I could fit twice as many shirts in a drawer if I stored them vertically instead of stacking them on top of each other. An added benefit of this is that you can see at a glance what you have, instead of having to look under things. (It is also a fantastic way of packing a suitcase. I packed this way for a week-long summer camp and kept my suitcase in perfect order the whole week with almost no effort.)

Even if your house has very little official storage space, you can usually find ways to store the things you really need to keep around–if you use a little creativity.

Do you have a favorite method?

Some amazing storage methods:

These are affiliate links and I get a commission for qualifying purchases, at no extra cost to you.

Captain’s bed: Pricey, but so wonderful

 

A lift bed. Also a great idea. It’s amazing how much you can fit under a bed.

 

Storage ottomans are a great place to put extra throw pillows and blankets, not to mention kid’s toys.

5 Tips for Better Dinner Conversations

You’ve just put the finishing touches on supper. It’s nutritious, delicious, and artistically presented in attractive dishes. Your spouse and all the kids are ready to share another wonderful family meal. You know how important family meals are, after all, and you want the best for your children. So, you sit down to dinner ready for wonderful conversation and family bonding time.

“So Johnny, how was school today?” You ask your son brightly.

“Ok.” Johnny says, shoveling another mouthful of mashed potatoes into his face.

Not a very interesting answer, but you try to take comfort in the fact that at least he obviously likes the meal you prepared.

“How did your classes go, Jenny?” You ask your teenage daughter.

“I have a paper due tomorrow. Can I go?”

You nod, sighing internally.

Finally, you turn to your husband. “How was work?”

“It was fine.” He says. “Can you pass the salt?”

“Mom,” your younger daughter interrupts, just as you’re about to pick up the salt. “Johnny just kicked me under the table. Can you make him stop?”

You sigh… family dinners are supposed to be great bonding time…after all, studies show that more family dinners means healthier, more successful, happier children and teens. But aside from good healthy home cooked food, what really makes or breaks the family dinner is the conversation that goes with it. If the conversation goes well, you will likely have a happy family experience overall. If the conversation is a disaster, you likely have other problems in your family.

Here are five tips that should make your family meal conversations more satisfying and enjoyable.

 

Ask open ended questions

Yes or no questions are good for some things, but dinner conversation is not one of them. If you want to get a conversation going, you have to ask a question that requires your conversation partner to bring some information to the table. If you ask, “How was school today?” “Fine” is a perfectly legitimate answer, but it gives you nothing to talk about.

Instead of asking how school went, or if it was ok, try asking questions like, “What was something interesting that happened at school/work/home today?” Then your conversation partner has to actually introduce some information into the conversation.

 

Ask followup questions

You sit down to dinner. “Johnny, what was something interesting that happened at school today?”

“We played a new game at recess.” Johnny says.

“That’s interesting.” You say…and the conversation dies.

Conversation is like a game of tennis. You serve the ball to get in into play–this is like the preliminary question. Your partner returns it, by adding something new. And you need to return it again, once again by adding something of your own, or by asking a follow up question.

If Johnny tells you he played a new game at recess, you should ask, “What game was it?”

Then, when he tells you what game it is, you now have a real topic of conversation. Your whole family could get involved. You could share stories of when you played that game, discuss the rules, and eventually end up going on glorious tangents about ball manufacture, game theory, and the Olympics… which brings me to the next tip.

 

Bring up interesting topics.

You are probably very busy, but try to spend at least a few minutes each week learning  or doing something interesting just so that you can share it with your family and broaden your and their horizons a little. I think most of what I learned as a child, and much of my joy in learning, came from conversations around the dining room table. My parents read, my brother read, I read; and we discussed all of it over our meals. We almost always had something new and interesting to talk about.

It doesn’t really matter what the topic is–as long as you are interested in it, you can probably get your family interested too… with a few exceptions.

 

Avoid depressing topics.

Many families have some topics that are banned for discussion during meals. Common forbidden topics include snakes, worms, and anything gross or gory. Besides your own family’s forbidden topics, I would suggest avoiding any topic that is likely to result in a sense of hopelessness or fear. This would include conspiracy theories, the end of the world, the three days of darkness, and probably about half of what was in the latest newspaper…

Conspiracy theories are sort of fun–you get a perverse sort of thrill from discussing how “they” –depending on your political affiliation and interests, “they” might stand for the Illuminati, Big Business, The Government, the Communists, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Left, the Right, the Far Left, or the Far Right–are controlling everything, and have been controlling everything for the last few decades/centuries. Discussing conspiracy theories gives you the feeling that you are special, you are not deceived like the rest of men, you have the secret knowledge that will make you powerful–except that in practice it does nothing but make you fearful and hopeless.

If “they,” whoever they might be, really have as much power as your theory says they do, then there isn’t really much point in trying to make the world a better place–and that is the message your children will imbibe with their spaghetti and meatballs.

It is good to discuss politics and history and sociology with your family. But these conversations will form your child’s world view possibly more than anything else, and so be sure that the world you show them is the one you want them to see.

Any since it is important to discuss different topics, it’s inevitable that disagreements will arise, which brings me to my last point.

 

Practice good manners

Talking to people is one of the most important skills you can teach your children. And being polite is a vital part of that skill. So a few ground rules are in order. Here’s a sample list of rules that will help your conversations stay respectful and enjoyable.

 

  1. Listen to the other person’s full thought before answering.
  2. Swallow before talking.
  3. Make sure other people get a turn to talk.
  4. Stay on topic, unless everyone is okay with changing the subject.
  5. If you disagree, respectfully explain your reasons for disagreeing, rather than insulting the other person.
  6. Keep voices at an appropriate indoor volume.

 

Hopefully these five tips will give you what you need to make meal time with your family a relaxing and stimulating experience.

Books to Read While Stuck at Home

If you’re stuck at home worrying, or just bored, here’s some good books to read that will not only help you pass the time but also make you better for having read them. They only have two things in common: I’ve enjoyed them all, and they all discuss boredom and confinement.

Enjoy!

(The pictures are affiliate links that will take you to Amazon to buy these books. Buying through these links will give me a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Crime and punishment

This is a great classic to read anyway, but it’s a particularly good book for now, since it shows exactly how not to react to living alone and never going anywhere, and what might happen to your mind if you spend too much time alone brooding. So buy a couple of books and read them instead.

Chess

This is a short, fast read that will make you feel fortunate that you have the internet, books, etc and maybe even other people, or at least a phone to ward off boredom.

He Leadeth Me

This is the true story of a priest in Soviet prison during the cold war. It tells how his hardships and imprisonment led him closer to God, and how grace and prayer sustained him through those difficult times. Inspiring and encouraging. It is the companion volume to With God in Russia, which is also a great read.

The Price To Pay

This autobiographical book is absolutely thrilling. I read the prologue and I was hooked! I was reading it in another language and needed a dictionary to get through it, but I still couldn’t put it down–that’s how exciting this book is.

It’s the story of an upper class Muslim man in Iraq in the early 2000’s who decides to convert to Christianity, despite the fact that it is against the law for a Muslim to convert. He faces imprisonment, torture and near death for his new-found faith–and all that before he’s even get baptized.

The Count of Monte Cristo

A classic story of revenge and redemption. Always a good choice, but it’s particularly good for if you are bored and stuck at home for long periods of time. Firstly because it’s very long (over a thousand pages if you get the unabridged version, which is definitely the way to go.) So you won’t have to find another book too soon. And secondly because it’s partly about how one man deals with long term confinement…. Although plotting comprehensive revenge on all your enemies might not be the best choice of how to spend time at home. But it’s an exciting book.

Lent, Pandemic, and Reassessing our Lives

Every Lent begins with a reminder that we will die. “Remember, man, that thou are dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.” St Jerome and many other saints are often depicted with a human skull, to show that they were conscious of their mortality. St Benedict told his monks, “Keep death daily before your eyes.”

Some people think this Catholic fascination with death is morbid and depressive. Quite the opposite. We are supposed to remember death, not so that we will forget to live, but so that we won’t. Your life is whatever you are doing right now, not some dream vacation in a vague future someday. Your life is your current habits, not your future reformed self, once you are old and retired and have time for holiness. Remembering that we might die reminds us to live.

The Catholic Church understands this, and invented Lent to help us remember that “unto dust we shall return.” Lent is almost over, all but the last, most sacred week. But this year, even if we failed to make a good Lent, we have another God-given reminder that “real life” is ephemeral.

A month ago, none of us would have imagined that everything could just close down—jobs, restaurants, schools, events. Plans changed overnight. Suddenly people aren’t going to work. Suddenly kids aren’t going to school. Suddenly people’s weddings are canceled, graduation is canceled…parties, social events, even Mass is canceled. COVID-19 has taken over everything, canceled everything, and definitely made for a more penitential Lent than most of us were probably planning on.

The timing is providential. Lent is there to remind us that the important things are not here, but in God. That we are not in control, but God is. And if Lent failed, then perhaps COVID-19 will succeed.

Reassessing Sundays

It’s hard enough for Catholics to be told that they can’t go to Mass on Sunday. The idea of spending Easter alone at home is heartbreaking; not just missing out on the beautiful Easter liturgy, but also not having the opportunity to celebrate Christ’s resurrection with friends and family.

For many of us, going to Mass on Sundays had been just a soulless fulfillment of a legal requirement. The Church says we have to go to Mass, so we go to Mass. But the real point is to keep holy the Lord’s day. We might have been going to Mass on Sundays, but were we really keeping them holy? Were we really understanding them as the day set aside for the service of God? And if not, what can we do to serve God on Sundays?

Reassessing Relationships

Sunday observance isn’t the only routine that could use reassessment from time to time.

The COVID-19 situation is forcing many people to spend longer periods of time alone with their spouses and families, which can be hard to deal with, even in the most loving and supportive of relationships. Lock any small group of people together in an enclosed space and dump some stressors on them, and their faults will become very evident very quickly.

As anyone knows who has tried it, taking care of very young children is hard enough even when you can get a babysitter for an occasional night out, or invite a friend over for a play date. If you add in social isolation and the fear of pandemic and its possible economic effects, you’re going to have some real challenges.

But on the other hand, this challenging time–and the fact that you now have no one to depend on but your spouse–is a reminder of how important it is to invest in your marriage. Marriage is a partnership where two people agree to take responsibility for helping each other find God. Once entered into, that relationship is your single most valuable possession, emotionally, spiritually, and even materially. So if quarantine conditions reveal weaknesses in your relationship, that is a great opportunity to invest in strengthening those areas. A kind word here, a loving touch there, a date night in, just listening–simple things that you might have been forgetting to do–can go a long way to building the foundation for a happier and stronger family. It might require a little creativity, but that’s kind of the point. We have to think outside the box now, because all the tidy little boxes we built for ourselves are gone now.

 

Whatever else it might be, this pandemic is a wake-up call for each of us, a reminder that what is really important is not our plans, our schedules, or our careers–a microscopic nuisance can change all of that overnight. What matters is our relationships with God, and with the people God has put in our lives.

Lent and COVID-19 are here to remind us to reassess our priorities. Life is now, and we only get one try. What are we going to do with it?

Quarantine: A Blessing in Disguise?

Unless you work in the medical field, it’s likely that you’ll be spending a lot more time than usual at home over the next few weeks. And if you’re like a lot of other people, you’re probably wondering what on Earth you (and your kids, if you have any) are going to do to stay sane.

Watching videos and movies might help relieve the tedium at first, but it doesn’t take long before a steady diet of sitting around staring passively at screens makes you feel physically and mentally dull, grouchy, and irritable. So how to stay sane while self-quarantining? (Or as a stay-at-home-mom on a regular day. Has anyone else noticed that life is not really all that different for a lot of people? It’s just now there’s lots of stay-at-home parents.) Here’s a few ideas that might help ward off boredom.

 

Step 1: Clean Your House

You’re going to be spending a lot of time there so you might as well spend some time trying to make it more pleasant. (Besides what else are you going to do?)

Think about rearranging your furniture to facilitate the activities you actually want to do and discourage the activities you want to avoid. As an example, if you want to do more crafts and watch less TV, you could consider rearranging your living room so that the chairs don’t face the screen, and setting up a permanent craft station.

Also, take a walk-through of your house for things that have been irritating you, like clutter piles, much-delayed repairs, and half finished projects, and make a list of them.

 

Step 2: Make a Plan

The problem with free time is that you don’t know what you’re going to do. So a vital step toward avoiding insanity is to make sure that you have a plan. In one large family I know, a couple of the older siblings took inspiration from summer camps they had attended and when school was cancelled, decided to set up “St Corona camp”  for their younger siblings. They divided them up into three teams and arranged activities for them, including basketball, a bonfire, and household chores.

Now most families don’t have enough children to organize a “camp.” Some people live alone, but whether or not you have kids, planning out your day in advance can really help you be productive and make you feel happier. Whatever the cause of the current situation, and whatever the outcome will be, let’s take this time right now as a “reset moment.” Life is on pause for many of us, and it’s a good time to reassess our schedules, our habits, and our goals. We want to become better and stronger as individuals, as families, and as communities, so now is a good time to determine whether we are currently heading in that direction or not, and make a course correction.

So turn off the news, get off Facebook, stop worrying about the past and the future that you can’t control, and look at your own life: what can you do to live well this hour, this day, this week.

Schedule activities

Schedules help. And I don’t mean scheduling every minute of every day. Some people might enjoy that sort of thing, but most find it stressful to maintain and therefore ineffective. A better method is to focus on a few “anchor activities” each day. These will help your day have structure and prevent you from drifting into a morass of idleness, boredom, and despair.

Regular mealtimes are a good place to start. They can serve as a framework for the rest of your day. Next, think about planning at least one major activity in the morning between breakfast and lunch, one between lunch and supper, and one in the evening after supper. I personally find it helpful to plan the day the night before, but other people might find it works better to plan the whole week in advance or to plan first thing in the morning.

There’s an endless list of activities to choose from, but a good place to start would be to make sure to get one of each of the following categories each day. Of course these categories overlap. Fixing a meal is a chore, but if you pick the right recipe you might find that cooking is also fun, and if you do it with your child, or if you are learning a new skill, it also classifies as self-improvement. And I suppose you could even call it exercise depending on what you’re making. Rolling out tortillas or pie dough can be quite strenuous. (If you don’t believe me, try making pie crust for 200 mini quiches some morning. I did it once and I was sore for the next three days.)

Chores

This can include meal preparation, cleaning and repair projects around the house. These are things that have to be done but which can either be put off indefinitely or end up taking up all of the available time; neither of which are good options. Scheduling these sorts of activities helps keep them under control. (Here’s where that list you made in step one comes in handy)

 

 Fun

Anything that you do that’s enjoyable. It’s important to plan fun this could include watching movies, playing card games or board games, dancing to music, playing with your children or any other activity that you particularly enjoy. (I’ll post some idea resources at the end)

 

Exercise

Exercise is extremely important for maintaining mental and physical health. It helps to ward off depression and makes your immune system stronger. You don’t need a lot of equipment to exercise. Even though you can’t go to your gym and work out on the machinery, you can do bodyweight exercises at home, look up a workout video online or go for a walk if the weather is good. Making exercise a regular part of your day will help you avoid frustration and make you stronger and healthier.

 

Self Development

If you are unable to do some of your usual work, you might find yourself feeling useless and frustrated. But now is a good opportunity to engage in self-development, to learn things you’ve always wanted to learn how to do things that you’ve always wanted to do. Read a good book you’ve always wanted to read, take a free online course in a subject you’re interested in, learn a new skill or craft, start writing a book or story, or teach one of your kids one of the skills that you already have.

There are absolutely unlimited options in this category. Potty train your toddler. Start a family custom of reading out loud (This is supposed to be the absolute best thing you can do to encourage literacy in your children) But whatever you choose to do will be especially helpful if it’s big and ambitious. Don’t read just blog posts, read real books. Take a real course. Learn how to draw, and practice practice practice. Start a personal business. If you can commit to a big project, and keep progressing on it, it should ward off frustration and make you feel like you are going somewhere and doing something worthwhile, even if you can’t go to work.

(Coursera offers piles of online courses, many of which are free. Some even have college credit. (This is not an affiliate link and I do not necessarily endorse all of their courses)

 

Social Interaction

You might not be able to go visit your friends, or meet them for coffee at Starbucks, but you still need to talk to people and keep in touch with your friends. It’s also perfectly fine to invite a friend or two to go for a walk with you. Scheduling time to call friends and relatives helps build your social capital and also alleviates cabin fever. Texting, emailing, and good old fashioned letter writing work too. (When was the last time you wrote a real, handwritten letter, and sent it to a friend?) You can even host conference calls and have virtual parties over Skype or FaceTime.

And if you have family with you, now is a great time to build stronger relationships with them.

 

People are worried, and that’s understandable. Scary things are happening, however you look at it. But the important thing is to not let fear or worry keep us from the things that are important. As Gandalf says, “All we must decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

They say if you’re given lemons, make lemonade. But what we have been given is time. Time is a measure of change, so with the time that has been given us, let’s make positive changes in our own lives, so that when this is all over, whenever and however that occurs, we will be better, stronger and happier as people, as families, and as communities.

 

 

Just a couple ideas for fun with your family:

I know, I know… But this is one of my favorite board games ever.

 

 

This is a fun and brainy game. You get to learn a lot about how your family members think. I have spent many hours playing this game.

I haven’t used this exact kit, but I remember really enjoying it when my parents did these with me when I was little.

Change your Life with Gratitude

Last time I talked about how we have a choice of stories to tell about our lives. We can tell the negative version or the positive version. It’s the difference between saying “Ugh! I have piles of dirty dishes to wash! Woe is me! ” Or “Wow! I have a sink, and a countertop and dishes to eat off of, and apparently food to eat as well, because otherwise my dishes wouldn’t be dirty! I am pretty fortunate.”

The difference between the two stories is not a question of accuracy but of attitude.

But as I mentioned last time, it’s often very hard to notice and remember the positive things, since as humans, we are programmed with a negativity bias which is great for staying alive the jungle, but less great for being happy and content.

 

Why so negative?

As humans we’re also really good at pattern recognition. We like seeing patterns, and things that don’t fit with the pattern stick out a mile. As an example, if you were to walk into a beautifully painted and furnished room that happened to have an ink stain or a small tear in the middle of the rug, you would almost definitely notice and focus on the stain rather than the pleasant effect of the rest of the room. And that’s not wrong. It’s a good thing that we especially notice things that don’t fit in. It makes us very good at locating and solving problems.

It’s a cliché that people who don’t have much appreciate what they do have more than people who have a lot. It’s also usually true. But it’s not something to be ashamed of if we happen to be blessed. It’s normal. It makes sense. The good things that make up the fabric of our lives form a pattern of peace and plenty. It makes sense that we should be accustomed to that and see any deviation from that pattern as an aberration. Similarly, a person whose life’s pattern is made up of danger and want will see good things as unusual and notice them more. If you’re starving and cold all the time and you are offered a warm delicious meal, a hot shower, and a cozy bed, you will definitely appreciate those things more than someone who has them every night.

But that doesn’t make you better than someone who has more blessings than you. For the moment, you could say that you are more aware of the goodness of your situation, but it would be equally true to say that they are more aware of the badness of things in their situation.

So the solution isn’t shaming ourselves for not noticing our blessings. (I’m imagining the stereotyped parent scolding his child for not appreciating dinner when children are starving in Africa.) Shame is neither appropriate nor helpful. What we need is gratitude.

How to change

Gratitude and happiness are very closely linked. If we want to be happy we need to notice our blessings and be grateful for them. But how?

Well, fortunately, there is a simple way to get better at seeing the good things. And it’s surprisingly easy.

Positive psychologist Shawn Achor author of The Happiness Advantage discovered that keeping a simple gratitude journal for just three weeks improved people’s levels of overall happiness and productivity, precisely by helping them see the good things that so often become invisible.

And it’s about the easiest thing there is. All you need is a paper and pen, and sixty seconds a day. (A smartphone or computer could work too, if you can’t find a pen and paper.)

Every evening you take one minute to write down three things you are grateful for that day– and they have to be three new things each day. You can’t write the same three things every day. If the first day you are thankful for coffee, chocolate and wine, you have to find three other things to be grateful for the next day. (Such a bummer, I know) They can be events, (I’m grateful my daughter didn’t scream all day) things, (I’m grateful for my new chair that makes my back happier) or states (I’m grateful that I’m married to my amazing husband.)

At the end of three weeks, you will have thought of 63 wonderful things about your life and written them down. It might seem like too small a thing to make much of a difference, but I can tell you from experience that it really does change the way you think about your life. All day long, your brain is remembering that you have to come up with three things to be grateful for. So instead of just looking for the things that don’t fit, or the potential threats, part of you will be looking all day long for good things to notice. It’s a whole new state of mind. And the effects last a lot longer than you would expect. Give it a try! Get a friend (or family member) to do it with you. It might even be fun.

 

Nothing kills the joy in writing like a bad pen. These pens make writing (and drawing) fun. I use them every chance I get. (Affiliate links. Purchases made through the links below give me a small commission at no cost to you)

And writing a gratitude journal is so much more fun if you actually have a journal to write in. Journals also make great gifts. I love blank books a rather absurd amount.

The classic notebook.

 

Fun and nautical:

 

And just pretty:

Antibiotics for Christmas and Focusing on the Positive

 

It’s been several months since I last posted. I really didn’t want to be that blogger–the one who writes for a few weeks or months and then gets bored or runs out of ideas and stops, leaving yet another dead website littering the internet. But sometimes life happens and interferes with plans and goals; in this case I had to take time off to have a baby. (Totally worth it.)

Christmas is already a couple months away, and I usually try not to share too much of my personal life here, but today I want to talk about how I spent my Christmas, not because that story is important, but because the way we tell our stories is so much more important than we realize.

I woke up on Christmas morning feeling really miserable. I just hurt. It was a week after I had my baby, and I thought I would feel better soon, but I just kept hurting. I ended up spending most of the day laying on the sofa groaning and feeling sad that I was ruining my husband’s Christmas. Finally that evening I started running a fever and we ended the day by going to the emergency room where I was diagnosed with a postpartum infection and given antibiotics.

As I was laying around in the hospital having antibiotics pumped into my veins, I realized that there are two different ways to tell this story–and just about any other story in our lives–and the version we choose has a profound effect on who we are and how happy we are.

Versions of our story

So here’s the two versions of the story of my Christmas.

One version of the story goes like this:

My Christmas was totally ruined! I didn’t get to eat dinner with my friends like I was supposed to. I felt awful, and to top it off, I had to spend half the night in the emergency room. And half of that time was spent waiting around for people to show up, for tests to be done, or for medicines to be delivered. I didn’t even get to open any presents! Such a lousy Christmas.

And then there’s the other version:

Despite the fact that I got an infection of a sort that people used to die from, I got to spend Christmas with my caring husband and my healthy, adorable, good-tempered newborn. Not just one but two kind families agreed to take care of our toddler while we dealt with my illness. And we got to drive our own car to a well-staffed, well-equipped hospital within a few minutes of our home, where trained professionals (who were polite and cheerful despite having to work on Christmas) diagnosed and quickly treated my condition with medications that didn’t even exist a century ago. As a result I recovered quickly. We opened our Christmas presents the next day, and no one really minded waiting the extra day.

 

So what is the difference between these two stories? They’re both true. They both tell a factual story of how I spent my Christmas. Both take about the same amount of effort to tell. But the first story focuses on the negative while the second recognizes all the wonderful things that happened that day.

Every day things happen that we can’t control. People get sick, things break, plans fall through. Sometimes life is genuinely hard. I really wouldn’t care to repeat the experience of spending Christmas in the emergency room. But even if we can’t control the situation, we do have a choice about how we tell the story, both to ourselves, and to others.

We hear about being positive so much it can get old after awhile. It tends to sound like an invitation to self deception. But focusing on the positive doesn’t mean ignoring the negative. It just means looking at the whole picture. Yes, your car is broken and you can’t get to work, and yes, this is a major difficulty that you can’t ignore. But the fact that you had a car to begin with is such an incredible thing from a historical perspective that it does deserve some appreciation. Then there’s the fact that you have a job, that you live in a place where there are roads to drive your car on, and that you have the freedom to drive your car to your workplace; these are things which employed Americans take for granted every day, but so many people around the world don’t have these blessings.

Of course, as humans we do have a cognitive bias towards anomalies, especially negative ones. You will survive better in the savannah if the most salient thing is not the way the wind ripples through the golden grasses under the glowing sun, but the lion that’s about to eat you.

In the jungle, noticing the negative things will save your life, but in a world where most anomalies are not life-threatening, noticing only those things will make you waste emotional energy, and, if you aren’t careful, your whole life.

Remembering to tell the story of our lives positively changes our perspective on everything. So many of our inconveniences are actually just the backside of blessings. Maybe your house doesn’t have enough storage space. I can sympathize. It’s definitely a trial. But the fact that you have insufficient storage space presupposes that you have lots of belongings that are worth keeping–definitely a good thing. You could say that first world problems are the jagged edges of our blessings.

The Tapestry of Life

We’ve probably all heard life referred to as a tapestry whose pattern we will see only when we die. Here on Earth we only see the backside, and it doesn’t make much sense. But after we die we’ll see the beautiful pattern God has drawn with the various threads of our lives. It’s a nice metaphor, if a little overused.

But I think that on another level, we can see the front of our tapestry, if we take the effort. The car breaking down, the lack of storage space–these are the loose ends on the back of the tapestry. They don’t look nice, but who says we have to live on the backside of our lives all the time? Occasionally we should take a moment to look around at the front of our lives and see all the beautiful colors and patterns there.

It’s not a denial of reality–we know we have problems and if we try to ignore them, they will certainly remind us of their presence–but we have a choice: we can live our lives in a constant state of resentful irritation at our difficulties, or we can live in a permanent state of awed gratitude for what we have been given. I don’t know about you, but I think that awed gratitude sounds more pleasant.

 

Odds and Ends

When I was growing up my mom had a box labeled “Odds and Ends,” where she stored bits of string and ribbon and cord. And whenever I had a project that required just a little bit of string, I could look through the box and find something that would work. I didn’t have to wait and go to the store to get something. I could just do my project and be done with it.

Now, I could write about thriftiness and reusing things, but I actually thought about my mom’s box for a very different reason.

A friend recently told me that she had improved her productivity and her level of general satisfaction with life by using the “in between” times to get things done, and that got me thinking: how much time do we lose to being in between things, waiting for stuff to happen, and enforced idleness? And so, of course, I googled it, and discovered that according to a survey conducted by Timex, over the course of a lifetime, the average American spends about 6 months waiting for stuff.

So how can we avoid wasting those 6 months?

Now I’m not suggesting that everyone should become frenetic multitaskers, checking emails while taking a shower, or putting makeup on while driving. In fact, I would enthusiastically discourage both of these activities. And I’m also not suggesting shortening leisure activities like sleeping, reading, taking walks, watching movies, or whatever you happen to find recharges you. These activities are important and deserve their time.

What I’m talking about are those moments that you probably haven’t noticed. Like while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew in the morning. Or waiting for supper to cook. Or waiting in line at the grocery store or at a doctor’s office. Or, if you’re a mom, maybe those moments where you’re sitting around breastfeeding, or waiting for a baby to go to sleep. Or waiting for a toddler who wants to do it “all by myself.”

Most of us spend these moments feeling stressed, thinking about all the things we could be doing if we didn’t have to wait. But what if we could turn them into opportunities instead of sources of stress? Instead of stressing about all the things we can’t do, what if we figured out what we can do?

Here are just a few ideas that I’ve come up with for using those in between moments. I’d love to hear other people’s ideas, too.

Waiting for something to cook

Whether it’s your coffee brewing in the morning, or your lasagna baking at night, waiting for things to get done can be really frustrating. But since you’re stuck in the kitchen anyway, there is probably a lot you can actually do.

I happen to have my home command center in the kitchen, so while waiting for stuff in the morning, I can look over my to do list. It only takes a few minutes, but it improves my day by reminding me what I actually want to get done, and in those little moments throughout the day I can check things off as I do them, and feel like I accomplished something, even if it was just eating lunch.

Or you can do those never-ending kitchen chores: sweeping the floor, washing a few dishes, wiping down or tidying counters, setting the table up for the meal, or putting away dishes in cabinets. Even dusting can be done quickly in between other things.

Or maybe you’re too tired to get all the kitchen chores done while you cook. In that case, take that time to relax as effectively as possible. While napping is probably not a good idea unless you’ve perfected the five minute power nap, there are things you can do to use that time to recharge yourself.

Sit down and put your feet up. Catch up on the reading you say you never have time to do. Do a simple mindfulness exercise: just take a couple of deep breaths, close your eyes, and focus on one sound, one sight, or one sensation. Don’t think about it, just experience it, relish it, savor it. Even just a minute spent that way can be surprisingly effective at reducing stress. I have recently started doing this, and it amazed me how different things seem when you try to experience things without thinking about them or judging them.

Waiting in line

I don’t know about you, but waiting in doctor’s offices is one of my least favorite ways to spend time. I spent quite awhile in one particular doctor’s office not too long ago, just waiting for a nurse to call my name. In some waiting rooms people talk to each other, but no one ever seems willing to talk at that office. Everyone is closed up in their own little bubble, texting,  reading, or staring at the TV set, which is invariably playing a vapid quiz show, or sports commentary.

There are magazines, but after I’ve paged through the first several issues of Good Housekeeping, looking at things I couldn’t afford even if I wanted them, I generally feel like I’ve gotten what I can out of the magazines.

But fortunately I’ve discovered that there are plenty of options for productive use of time even while waiting alone for an appointment.

First of all, you can use your phone in a productive way. That friend you haven’t talked to in a couple of months? It would probably be rude to call if there’s other people waiting with you, but why not send your friend a text or an email, just to see how they’re doing. It might make her day.

With a little preparation, your time in the waiting room can become even more effective. If you need to write something, you could consider installing a writing app on your phone, like Google docs, so that you can take it wherever you go. I’ve done a couple of different writing projects while waiting for things to happen. Or if you’re more old school, bring a notebook and catch up on your journaling or letter writing.

Or if you think you might have some time on your hands, bring a book, settle down as comfortably as you can in the waiting room chairs, and catch up on your reading. You might even be able to meditate if you want.

The important thing is to start with the attitude that the time you spend in the waiting room is not automatically wasted. This will leave you free to use it productively. Start thinking of it as special time reserved for your own relaxation, for catching up with your friends, and for doing things that you’re usually too busy to do, and you might even feel disappointed when they call your name.

Breastfeeding

For the first few weeks breastfeeding often takes concentration, but as time goes on and you and your baby get used to each other, it often becomes quite boring and frustrating to sit around for hours every day in unpredictable, 20-minute increments.

I really enjoyed those times, though, because it gave me a perfect excuse to sit down, make myself comfortable, and read a book. I think my baby appreciated it too, because I was more willing to let her linger as long as she wanted, since I was enjoying it, too. Some people instead watch movies, write to friends, or journal.

While transitioning my baby to her own bed in her own room I had to spend a lot of time getting her used to the idea of sleeping in the new place, which basically meant staying in a dark room until she went to sleep. It was unbelievably tedious until I realized I could install Google docs on my phone and write a book while I sat there. It made the process of sleep adjustment much more pleasant for all concerned, and I wrote a book.

Waiting for a child

One of the hardest things to do as a busy parent is to stand back and wait while your child tries to do something for himself. It’s so tempting to just shove the kid into his clothes, carry him out the door, and drop him in the car seat, and sometimes you have to do it that way.

But if you always do everything for your child, he’ll never learn new skills, and you’ll be stuck taking care of everything for him forever.

But I think it’s possible to avoid making the wait too tedious. There’s a few ideas you can try.

One thing I’ve found helpful is to tell my toddler what’s going on and have her get started on getting ready while I’m still getting ready, too. Or, if she’s taking her sweet time going to the potty, I can quickly wipe down the bathroom mirror, or throw in a load of wash.

Depending on your child’s attention span and level of development, this may or may not work. So another technique you can try is to simply think about it in a different way. Instead of viewing your child’s laggardly ways as a frustration, try to view them as quality time you spend with your child teaching him or her new skills. (And if you don’t believe this can work, I was able to get myself to think of diaper changes as quality time with my baby.) You might have to plan ahead and get started on activities a little earlier, but a simple change of focus can turn a source of stress into an enjoyable and productive experience.

 

Even those frustratingly short moments, like the time it takes for a pot to fill with water, can be useful to regain focus.

Try one of these ideas next time you’re waiting for your pot to fill up, the dish water to warm up, or your microwave to finish microwaving.

Take a couple of deep breaths. Close your eyes, straighten your shoulders, relax as many muscles as you can. Then think of one happy thing: maybe something you’re looking forward to this week, something you’re grateful for in your life, or something pleasant you heard or saw in the last few days. Or, take the moment to say a short prayer. Thank God for something you appreciate, praise Him, or ask Him for help in getting through the day.

These are just a few ideas. There are other odds and ends of time during the day that we tend not to use well, and that maybe even make us deeply unhappy. But I think there’s always a good use for time. Have you come up with any good uses for boring time?

Conflict Resolution in Loving Relationships

In the fairy tales, the hero and heroine walk off to get married, and “live happily ever after.” In real life, we know that it’s not quite so simple. They have to die someday, for one thing: they are human after all, and man is mortal. And that’s not the only difference between fairy tales and real life.

In real life, real women have days when they just don’t feel happy. In his book Men are From Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray cites research indicating that women have a monthly self-esteem cycle that rises and falls. Sometimes she feels on top of the world, and sometimes she just doesn’t. And then there’s pregnancy—raging hormones, strange symptoms, weird random pains—pregnancy can be difficult, and not being able to be pregnant when you want to can be even more difficult.

So real life isn’t as simple as the fairy tales make it sound. Marriage does not mean that you and your spouse will be confirmed in virtue, and suddenly have no human faults or failings, no mood swings, and no financial difficulties.

But that’s no reason you can’t be happy ever after with your spouse, as long as you are both willing to put in some work.

Here’s a few tips to help you deal with those days when you and your husband are just driving each other up the wall.

#1 Realize that it’s okay

So one day, you just feel like you can’t stand your husband anymore. Maybe yesterday, or a week ago, he was the love of your life and perfect in every way, but now, you can’t imagine what you could have seen in him, and you feel like everything you are doing is annoying him, too. Panic might set in: Love is gone! Oh no! What are we going to do?

First of all, you need to take a deep breath and realize that this is perfectly normal. People who live together drive each other insane sometimes. That’s just the way humans are. Even saints who spend all their time trying to be perfect and practice charity towards their neighbor end up rubbing some people the wrong way.So if you and your husband are bothering each other one day, it doesn’t mean your relationship is over, it doesn’t mean it’s even in trouble. You don’t need to put a marriage counselor on speed dial. Your situation is normal, and almost definitely temporary–as long as you handle it right.

#2 Try to identify an underlying cause

Sometimes, after you take a deep breath and remember that it’s not the end of the world, or even of your happy marriage, it becomes very easy to identify the issue. Sometimes it’s as simple as lunch being a really long time ago. After a nice dinner, it’s possible everything will be better. Sometimes you are worried about something and so your stress is rubbing off on your husband who reacts by getting stressed and thus stresses you out still more. This is very common.

Sometimes, though, there isn’t an easily identifiable underlying cause.

#3 Give it some time

Sometimes men need some time alone to regroup, solve a problem, or just relax. If you and your husband are driving each other insane, and it’s a recent thing—not a chronic problem for the last five years (in which case maybe you should try getting some help) then it’s possible that your man just needs some time to regroup. If he’s the mechanical sort, he might need to go tinker with whatever machine he’s working on at the moment. He might need to go out with some of his guy friends, especially if he rarely does that, or if it’s been longer than usual. Or he might need to go sit by himself and read a book for a few hours.

When he gets back from whatever his retreat is, you will probably find him as affectionate, considerate, and pleasant as he ever was. And it might not take as long as you think.

If you can take the opportunity to do something you enjoy at the same time—like hanging out with one of your buddies, or doing a project you enjoy, you might find that all you both needed was a very, very small amount of distance, and that your appreciation of each other is redoubled afterwards.

#4 Be careful how you say things

Sometimes you can’t wait. Sometimes you really do need to discuss a difficult topic right now, or you really need emotional support right now, even if your man is not really in the mood.

This can go well, too, but it takes some care. Men hate having their competence questioned, and hate being insulted. To attack the man’s ego is the fastest way to lose his love.

A lot of women have no desire to insult their husbands or boyfriends but manage to do it anyway, especially when they are not feeling great themselves.

Here are a couple of tips to avoid insulting your husband while you are having a hard time getting along:

a) Express your needs as your needs and not as his duties.

Suppose you need to discuss some issue that has come up, and he’s not in the mood, but it’s urgent. Try saying something like, “I’m really sorry, but I really need to talk about this right now. It won’t take long.” This is straightforward and non-accusatory. It simply states a fact. Now, this doesn’t mean it’s going to make him super happy—he might end up feeling bad because he knows it’s something he should be doing and doesn’t want to, but the point is to avoid giving him the impression that you are judging him and finding him wanting. If he takes your statement as a judgment on himself, that’s one thing. You don’t want to make it any harder than it has to be—you love the guy, right?

Try to avoid saying things like: “Why do you always avoid these discussions?” Or “You’re supposed to be the man in this house. Why are you trying to get out of making decisions?” These comments might seem innocuous, and justified, but they attack the man’s self-esteem. And the last thing a man needs is having his wife attack his self-esteem. It is hard for a man to love someone who makes him feel like a loser. These sorts of comments will inevitably escalate your conflict into something worse. Men in general, good men especially, want to feel that they are protecting and providing for their families—not doing chores assigned by their wives.

b) Be straightforward and calm.

Sometimes calm isn’t possible, but at least try to avoid hysterical exaggeration and raised voices. Also, nearly all men ever surveyed have stated that they prefer direct questions and direct requests to hints and vague suggestions. So if you really need something, just say so, and understand that if you husband loves you, he appreciates knowing what you need so that he can give it for you, and that if you don’t tell him what you need, he really genuinely won’t know. He might be grumpy about doing a particular thing at a particular moment, but if you have a solid relationship, and ask in a non-judgmental way, your husband will appreciate knowing your needs and being able to meet them.

c) Say thank you afterwards

If your husband does something for you, or talks over a difficult topic when he wasn’t in the mood, you should thank him afterwards. Thank him, and tell him it made you feel better. Men in general have a different way of looking at the world than women generally do, and it helps if you can give him a window into your world and how he made it better with what he did. (Also, if you show your appreciation for what he does for you, he’s more likely to repeat the behavior in the future, and who wouldn’t want that?)

Even the happiest married couples have their rough moments, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t happy. If you can handle those moments well, they will actually strengthen your union, deepen your love, and contribute to your mutual success as married people.

 

Some resources for helping your relationships thrive. (These are affiliate links)

This book describes how men (in general) and women (in general) react differently to different things. Its goal is to help people deal with the men and women in their own lives.

Yes, I recommend this book a lot, but that’s because it’s so good. Even if your relationship is marvelous, you can get something out of this book.

This is one I only read recently. Written by a woman who interviewed and surveyed dozens of men, it talks about what men want, how they think, and how women come across to men. I read it in one day. It’s a fun, easy read with a lot of interesting information. In the companion volume For Men Only, she explains to men how women work. 

A classic book on interpersonal relationships of all sorts. You might be surprised to discover that you’re making all sorts of mistakes in dealing with people.

And sometimes, the solution to our problems is chocolate…. or wine…. But Amazon doesn’t seem to sell wine…