Rarely does life play out the way we anticipate. And learning to manage the twists and turns of it with grace and optimism can feel impossible. A friend recently shared this essay in the NY Times about a writer frustrated with her unfinished novel. When she began focusing on others and their needs, her own problems seemed less unique and, somehow, less pressing. The last time I was job-less, I felt sick with anxiety about the career I’d left behind and the unknown path ahead. Losing my job two weeks ago sucked. But now, I have a world of opportunity ahead of me—literally.
This story really starts a few months ago, over dinner with my parents and a couple they’ve known for years. As we ate, the wife, (Colleen) who was raised in Malawi as a missionary kid, casually mentioned her non-profit, Watering Malawi, that uses money raised by kids (via lemonade stands, etc) to build wells in villages throughout the country. She makes somewhat regular visits to Africa to check on the status of the wells and meet with potential NGO partners, and she mentioned she’d be heading there in the next few months and was hoping to find women willing to join her. I told her that it sounded like an incredible opportunity, and that “I’d totally go if I didn’t have a full-time gig!”
Africa didn’t cross my mind again until the day after I found out about DailyCandy. Something led me to send Colleen a quick message asking if she’d found anyone to go with her. She responded immediately. Her mother, who still speaks the language (Chichewa) at age 79, would be joining her for a final visit, as would another woman handling logistics. But she was still looking for someone to help her record facts, document stories, take photos, and spread the word via social media and press. They’d be traveling between small villages, meeting with established global NGOs (like World Vision) as well as smaller organizations. They’d sit down with Girls Empowerment Network and potentially the female president of Malawi. And they’d spend time with the women who take care of the wells, and check in on the girls Colleen is worried have been married off.
How could I say no?
And so, within a matter of days (and the support of a few freelance assignments that just so happened to come my way), I’d made up my mind. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There was no way I wasn’t going. At the time, all I knew about Malawi was the Madonna connection. Now, I know about the strides President Joyce Banda—who’s up for re-election next May—is making for the sake of women (check it out).
This is not a mission trip, nor is it a vacation. We will be working, traveling, moving, meeting. And I will be listening, learning, and admiring. Our tickets are booked. I’ve gotten shots and an updated passport. We leave in one week, and we’ll be gone for 10 days. I’ll be documenting everything on this blog, from a few last-minute preparations to each day or so of the trip. My plan is to ingest as much information as I possibly can, and then carefully and passionately share it with the world. These women have stories to tell, but no outlet to tell them. Until now.
Two weekends ago, I had the honor of hosting the most fantastic lunch with my pal Dean Renaud for Jessica Murnane’s One Part Plant For Reals Meals series. I’ve admired these meals for months from afar, so when she asked me to host one, I could barely contain my excitement. Dean and I both hail from Kentucky and have thrown our own equally-epic Derby parties before we ever met each other, so it was only natural that we cook up a Southern spread. But making plant-based recipes was a definite first for us both. Fried chicken and pimento cheese went out the window in favor of surprisingly delicious grit cakes and raw Derby pie.
To give the setting a fresh, spring look, we adopted a white, wood, and green color scheme with hits of gold. For our centerpiece, we gathered small plants in a vintage crate (which once held Ale 8, a soda made in KY). And then to add greenery to each setting, I crafted some placemats out of fake moss. What’s wonderful about these guys is that they only look complicated — I swear! Sadly, I didn’t take step-by-step photos as I made them, but hopefully these instructions (plus photos by the lovely and talented Ms. Carolina Rodriguez) make the project fairly easy to follow.1. Purchase a moss runner like this one, which measures 48 inches long. Use sharp scissors to cut the runner into placemats large enough to hold a dinner plate. Because I needed six placemats, I bought two runners. I cut four from the first runner (each placemat measured 12 inches long) and then I cut two more from the second runner. Use scissors to cut rounded corners on each placemat.
2. Place a dinner plate onto the placemat, then lift up one side of the plate to tuck in a few cut flowers; we used ferns with gold-painted tips (just use acrylic paint and a paintbrush to make them yourself) and wax flowers. Play with the placement until you’re satisfied, making sure the flowers’ cut ends lay beneath the plate.
3. Remove the plate, then use a glue gun to affix the flowers in place, covering the glue with extra stems when possible. Lay the plate back down and fill up on food.
In the wake of last week, I’ve decided that the only way to move forward is to do just that: by saying yes to adventures (both literal and more figuratively) that lie ahead rather than focusing on the past. So when a last-minute weekend press trip came my way, I accepted with excitement. This one was for a “girls’ adventure weekend” at the five-star resort in Kohler, Wisconsin. Led by author/chef/Girl Hunter Georgia Pelligrini, the experience was filled with both creatures (hunting, fishing) and comforts (delicious meals, luxe hotel rooms with heated bathroom floors).
The women participating came from a range of hometowns, backgrounds, and ages (late ’20s to 69), but they shared one characteristic: fearlessness. Inspired by their willingness to try anything, I stepped right up to learn how to shoot a shotgun. Was it pretty? Heck no. Did I accidentally fire into the ground and startle myself sick? Yes. It was embarrassing to say the least. But this was an accepting group who pushed each other to keep trying, even though they’d only known each other briefly.
While they hunted pheasants in the field, I did my part to snap photos and gather switchgrass for a pretty bouquet. And when they cleaned the birds, I immediately grimaced before reminding myself of the importance of knowing where our food comes from. I buy meat in the grocery store that I don’t know much about, but this meat was fresh and natural. Georgia explained how to use the entire bird (feathers, bones for stock, etc), and we all listened in amazement. The weekend was inspiring, informational, and the perfect reminder that some of life’s greatest lessons come when you least expect it.
I hadn’t felt so alive in years.
I was more confident; I felt connected, respected, and happy. The women in my NYC-based team were smart, hilarious, driven. And they challenged me to be a better writer, editor, and communicator. I had the creative control to do just about any story I wanted. I pretended to be an Olympic athlete. I wrote about women making a difference in the world, and those who’d overcome so much more than me. The site was breaking records in terms of traffic. The Chicago page, in particular, was seeing high enough traffic to meet my goals for the next four months (all thanks to this smokey cat eye tutorial).
I was just getting started.
And then, in the style of a boyfriend you love (even when he stresses you out) dumps you out of the blue, it was over. As I watched our president say the fatal words from my laptop, the sound cut in and out. Wait, what? It’s with a heavy heart…”NBC no longer thinks DailyCandy is a viable part of its portfolio.” We were closing and I couldn’t help but feel alone in my apartment, thousands of miles away from the others.
I’ve been through this whole losing-your-job-thing before. But this time it’s different. I could look at it many ways, but I’m choosing to take a positive perspective. I’m also planning to take a bit of time to let this marinate, which means I’ll be doing lots of crafting, cooking, playing with Louis, and blogging again.
Thanks for reading. Here’s to the next step — whichever way it takes me.
Just before the holidays, life was a whole lotta work. And not much play. And then during vacation, I turned off. Well, not really. But finding that balance between livelihood and life sure is tough. Always has been, always will be. Spending time with friends and family over the holidays was just the reminder I needed that nothing else is more important. I’m resolving to be more present in the new year. To try to be more efficient so that I can take moments to play—like we did this afternoon in a snowy park—with the people (and pup) I love most.
One goal I promised myself at the beginning of this whole thing was to discover a fun fact that I didn’t already know about my kin (And while it may appear that I’ve given up on this challenge, I think this whole thing was meant to be thwarted. Because I’m not sure I would’ve kept blogging. Now I feel like I owe it to me—and to you—to finish this damn challenge!) Andrew and I hopped a flight to Idaho for Thanksgiving, and spent a few days, eating, drinking, gaming, and doing those things Northwesterners do. Like cut down their own Christmas tree! And I’m not talking about going to a tree farm. These people do it the right way. We piled in cars, hot chocolate in tow, and drove to the Kaniksu National Park. After tromping through the snow and narrowing down our favorites, we selected a tree that was full enough to hold the family ornaments, and tall enough to not look weeny. It was a new tradition for me I look forward to being an old one.
Let me paint a little picture for you. It’s the first night of dog obedience class. There are about 10 other dogs; most appear to be purebreds. And most look like this isn’t their first time at the rodeo. It’s more of a”refresher” course. Louis is barking, tugging, whining, and desperately wants to sniff them all. We get our fair share of looks. I want to scream “He’s a mutt from the shelter that we just adopted three weeks ago!” Instead I cry in the car on the way home. I feel embarrassed and frustrated. Why didn’t he seem to learn anything? When will he get better? As if life already didn’t test my patience enough, Louis sure has been on a daily basis. But he’s improving, slowly but surely. Some days we take one step forward and two steps back. But at least we’re pointed in the right direction. Life, in general, can feel the same way. But most things we stress about each day don’t really matter down the line. Our patience is tested just to see how tough we are, how much crap we can handle. So that we come out way stronger on the end. PS: I promise this will not turn into a dog blog. Just have to get it out of my system for a post or two.
And it’s all this guy’s fault. Well, almost. With my new job and our newest family member, I haven’t had much (read: any) free time. Meet Louis (pronounced Louie) Lincoln Fairchild, a pup we brought home from the Anti-Cruelty Society just three weeks ago. All we know is that he’s from a shelter in KY and he’s around one years old. So since he and I share a home state, it was obviously meant to be. And for the most part, he’s a good boy. He loves to cuddle and greet people with lots of licks. But he doesn’t come when he’s called, and he’s still working on the housebreaking thing. As soon as I can get things a bit under control, I promise to get back to blogging—and that 30-day challenge…which turned into a 90-day one. Sigh. I hope you understand. Our first night of puppy training is tonight, so wish us luck!
You know how you can remember special moments in life based on the food you were eating? It feels like yesterday that we were in Istanbul chowing down on our favorite dish, menemem, for breakfast (below). It was wonderfully seasoned, familiar yet exotic, and just what we needed to fuel us for long days of sightseeing. As the days of fall turn to winter and we daydream about faraway destinations, I suggest recreating a memory with food.
I riffed on this recipe to make menemem at home (below). By swapping in chorizo for sausage, I added some heat, and we had to use less tomatoes and more onions (it was too early for grocery shopping). Our version turned out less juicy, but delicious all the same. And when Andrew found out that I was planning to make it, he pitched in to help. As we chopped and sautéed, we reminisced about the trip and that meal. “Yeah, add a little more peppers plus a pinch more salt.” And “I think we should add tons of cheese at the end.” No, we weren’t in Turkey—but at least it didn’t taste so far away.
I’m beyond thrilled to share my latest home project with you! Just a few days ago, I finally convinced Andrew to stop studying for approximately one hour to help me finish something I’ve been wanting to do since we moved in. In just over an hour, we covered a wall in our guest bedroom with rad marble paper from Dick Blick. And guess how much the whole thing cost? Just $50 for the paper, Modge Podge, and brushes we used. Our pup friend, Max, happened to be staying with us that weekend. I think he loved it too. NOTE: Don’t do this if you have awesome walls. We do not. In fact, our walls have layers of wallpaper living below paint.Step 1: Measure the paper and calculate how many pieces you’ll need to cover the wall. We needed to trim a few of ours down so they’d fit perfectly. Gather your other materials (shown below).Step 2: Apply a semi-thick coat of Modge Podge to the back of one paper piece using a foam brush.Step 3: Starting in one corner, carefully press the paper onto the wall. Step 4: Add a second sheet, but reverse the direction of the paper so that the pattern looks varied. With each piece, press the paper against the wall from one corner to another, removing any wrinkles as you go. Step 5: Carefully remove any excess paper along the bottom trim or along the corners where the walls meet.