FREE time

So.  Where I live, it snowed today.  A lot.  In fact, it is still snowing as I write this.  The roads were terrible, and half of our buses were forty-five minutes late.  My 20 minute commute was a cool 50.  We really shouldn’t have been in school today.  (After all, is this not why we have snow days–to date unused–BUILT INTO our schedule?)  But we did.  And I was pretty crabby about it.

But about half way through the day, when it became apparent that this was, in fact, the snow storm predicted and not some silly, little flurries to tease us in mid-March, my principal sent an email to the staff that said, effectively, “The roads are garbage.  As soon as the kids are gone, get out of here.”

I listened.  I packed up my stuff before I went out to bus duty.  I cancelled my voice lesson for tonight on my way out the door.  I drove myself home.  Fortunately, I drove home between gusting snow showers, and made it home in decent time.  I dug myself a spot to park in the building parking lot, parked and headed in.  Ready to snuggle in for the night.

It was only 4:11.

Being home by 4:11 is unheard of in my weekly grind.  I have other commitments that keep me away from home.  I stay late and get stuff done at work.  I go to the grocery store and run errands.  I go out to dinner with friends.  I don’t roll into my apartment for the night until after six.

And if I do, my time is allotted.  I have forty-five minutes between commitments and I have to get these six things done.  But tonight, I got home, and I had four and a half unaccounted hours at my disposal.  FOUR AND A HALF HOURS! That’s like half a day of work! And, because I’d come straight home, I still had energy to do more than throw myself on the sofa.

I had legitimate free time, and not “free time” in the not-at-work-sense, but FREE time–time that was not committed to any activity in my mind.  Outside of Saturday morning, this is an extremely rare occurrence in my life.  I tend to allocate time in my head, even my free time.  Things like, “I really need to clean the bathroom,” or “Oh, I can run to the bank then,” tend to crowd my existence.  But not tonight.  The roads weren’t bad, but there was no guarantee how long that would last.  I couldn’t go anywhere but home.  I had time. FREE time!

Well, what like any self-respecting Midwesterner presented with a snowstorm, naturally I had to make chili.  But unlike my usual, get-this-done-because-I’ve-only-got-an-hour weeknight speed cooking, tonight, I had FREE time.  I cranked up my Partridge Family Pandora station (it’s been my jam, lately), and started cooking.  With FREE time, cooking in my kitchen becomes a major production.   I use my stirring spoon as a microphone, and the big kitchen window is my audience.  (My neighbors always keep their blinds down.  But if they ever open them, they’re going to see a crazy girl singing with great conviction to their backyard.)  I also dance around like I can actually dance.

To be clear, I am a terrible dancer.  I am self-aware enough to know that, while I am good at a great many things, dancing is not among them…but this doesn’t stop me.  In my kitchen, I have no one who can tell me I can’t. (Willful self-delusion is a powerful thing…) Believe me, in my head, I am awesome.  I can bust a serious move.  (Reality is different, but there are no witnesses…and if a tree falls in a wood and no one hears it, does it really fall?)

As I write this, my candles are lighted, the chili is simmering on the stove and that warm, savory spiced aroma drifts past me.  I have a glass of red beside the computer.  King Harvest is rocking “Dancing in the Moonlight.”  The snow is blowing around outside while my radiators wheeze like tea kettles.  It’s a good moment to pause and savor.  This is what winter is all about.  This is what it is to have FREE time.

If you’d like to try out the rocking vegetarian chili (don’t worry–there’s no tofu here!), you can check it out here or check under the “Recipes” tab.  

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The Quest for Hygge

Hygge.  Before you waste five minutes trying to figure out  how to say that, it’s pronounced HOO-guh, and it is basically the philosophy that puts the Danes routinely at the top of every study as the happiest nation in the world, despite the fact that it is dark and cold there for most of the year.  Basically, hygge is a concept of family- and home-oriented coziness that strongly features homemade food, comfy clothes, warm socks, blankets, candles, and spending intentional time with the people you care about.  The Danish people have elevated this to a national standard, around which the whole culture revolves.

I started out on my quest for hygge on a whim, really.  Work life was functioning at a resting temperature of HIGH STRESS ALL THE TIME, which left me without the emotional motivation to go out or “be social.”  I just wanted to retreat into the hobbit hole of my apartment and shut out the world.  Wandering around social media in a quest to not do whatever I was supposed to be doing, I stumbled upon this article about hygge.  That article led to several more, which led to a Pinterest board, which led to the purchase (and reading) of The Little Book of Hygge, by Meik Wiking.

I read all about the importance of light (and good lighting–no hospital-style, industrial lighting for the Danes, oh no.)  I read about the importance of creating a comfortable and cozy place to relax and simply be. I read about a cultural way of thinking that put the process and journey of spending time with people you care about before anything else.  It’s the idea of “less is more.”  “Quality over quantity.”  The Little Book of Hygge threw out examples like making food with a few friends (even if the end product is a disaster), sitting around the kitchen table and playing games while drinking hot chocolate and eating homemade cookies, snuggling up in sweats with a blanket and a good book.

I was hooked.  I wanted that.  I wanted my home to be a place that was warm and cozy, where people came, and we made memories and shared each other’s lives.  I wanted to slow down my life to make time for things like board games.  I wanted hygge.

My first attempts started out small.  I made the pilgrimage to IKEA and bought a bunch of candles and invited a friend over to make fondue.  We spent a ridiculous amount of money on all the right cheeses to make a real Swiss fondue–and then we sat for two hours around the fondue pot and caught up on the past three months of life.  It was slow.  It was natural.  It was amazing.  And I wanted more.

Armed with this first small success, my book about hygge, and an article from thekichn.com about how to host a crappy dinner party,  (it’s a great article–read it here!), I started making it a part of my life.  Whenever someone suggested getting together–the unspoken American subtext being “at a restaurant or coffee shop”–I always jumped at the opportunity, and offered to host as my house.  I sent out text message invitations for “B.Y.O.S.” (Bring Your Own Slippers) events.  I got out a big pile of blankets whenever people were coming over.  I stocked up on hot chocolate and coffee.  I lit candles–so many candles!  I bought some games at Goodwill and had people over to play Scrabble.  I got really good at fifteen minute cleaning, and told people that, while my house may be a little dirty, it was full of love.

And do you know what?  All my friends really liked it.  They didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t sweep my kitchen floor or that the cream cheese, cherry hand pies didn’t really turn out.  Everyone agreed toward the end of the night that it was fun, and we really should do it again.

I think our lives are so fast and so Instagram-ed, that we’ve forgotten that everyone else is imperfect, too.  Oh, I know when I say it, you think, “Well, duh.  Of course nobody’s perfect,” but in practice, it’s easy to believe that the pictures we see on social media are the way everyone’s life actually is.  You find yourself thinking, “I must be the only person who can’t get it together and leaves my purse and shoes right by the door as soon as I come in” and “I must be the only person who can’t figure out how to hang a really nifty, chic portrait collage wall…”

But really–we’re all in that boat.  We’re all standing and looking at the picture of the cupcakes on Pinterest, then the disaster on our counters and thinking, “Well.  That didn’t work.”  We’re all just little, imperfect people, doing what we can. Messing up.  Making mistakes.  Trying again anyway.

What we need, more than perfect lives, are people who share our imperfect lives with us. I think that, at its core, is what makes hygge so powerful to me.  It’s inviting people in.  It’s dropping masks of things none of us can be, anyway.  It’s putting people ahead of image.  It’s making real memories–not an airbrushed Instagram version.  It’s just–hygge.

The Ambiance of Reading

 

I am a bibliophile.  I love books–I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember.  At age five, I turned down the Barbie doll suggested by Santa in favor of a bookcase, because “then I won’t have to sleep with all my books under my pillow anymore.”  Yes. I was that kid–the one who had her Book-It goal met in the first seventy-two hours of the month. (It also meant we got to go to Pizza Hut so I could claim my prize of a free personal pan pizza–does it get better than pizza and books?  I submit that it does not.)

I grew up to be an adult who never has less than four books going simultaneously at any one time (the logic is I will always be in the mood for one of them.)  I fantasize about having a library in my house with one of those ladders with the wheels on the bottom that you can roll around the room.  And I know I preach to the choir when I say this, but, let’s be real here–the book is always better than the movie.

So, suffice it to say, reading matters to me.  Ambiance also matters to me.  This is why I am offended by people whose homes don’t have any sort of personality.  To modify the words of animal rights activists–Rooms Are People, Too.  And I believe strongly in creating rooms that are a haven against the crazy, busy, never-slow-down-y world out there.

Occasionally, I go on these Pinterest binges in which I create extensive boards of rooms and houses and decorating I love (but will never be able to afford.) There are a lot of idyllic, romantic reading nooks on these boards, if we’re being honest.  They usually involve bay windows and soft, muslin curtains and masses of pillows…or roaring fire places and top end, hand-knitted Merino wool blankets and steaming mugs of Fill-In-Hot-Beverage-of-Your-Choice-Here…and books.  Lots of books.  Lots of old, hardbound books.  Lots of old, hardvound books that smell of that peculiar blend of wood and vanilla.

Ah, it’s all beautiful, I tell you.  And when I get around to marrying a rich man and get my manor in the English countryside, I will get right on all of this.  I will have a million book nooks in all the places.

But back on Planet Earth, where I work for a living and call a little one-bedroom apartment home, it’s not quite that simple.  I do have the advantage of at least living in a building built in the 1920’s, so I have arched doorways and a real, old-fashioned party line phone on the wall, so I do have some of that old-fashioned charm.  But there aren’t a lot of “nooks” to speak of.  I don’t really have enough space to have nooks.  Nor do I have a bay window.  And a fireplace is right out.

IMG_1153But as of yesterday, I officially have a real reading corner–it’s not hidden away in a secret corner (superior, naturally, for its obvious Gothic novel overtones), and I didn’t “discover it.”  My reading corner has been evolving over the past several months.  It had a lot going for it from the start–the big window, the hand-me-down wing back chair, its proximity to the bust of Persephone on my bookcase (all very Grecian and classical–clearly English manor-worthy.)  But I’ve been adding to it.  I recently got into the joys of candles.  (Thanks, Hygge…) The lamp behind the chair was a big find–an impulse stop at Goodwill that gave me with that warm, buttery glow which masks how much light it actually produces.  (Eat your heart out, Design on a Dime.)  Then only yesterday, I finished crocheting and stuffing that poof on the floor. It may look funny to you, but that, my friend, is a 100% homemade, made-to-match ottoman–it is impossible to have a reading nook, as any sensible person will tell you, with your feet on the floor.  They have to be curled under you, or flung carelessly over the arm of a chair, or up on a footrest.  It is a reading nook must.

For the maiden voyage of my reading corner, I had to pick something appropriately lengthy and classic and beloved.  Hardbound binding is an unspoken requirement.  (I mean, if you’re going to go for it, you have to really go for it.)  You can’t tell from the photo, but the book resting on the chair is, in fact, Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring–it fits the whole “wing-back chair, English country manor” motif, I think.

There will of course be other, shorter, and probably more inconsequential books read on that chair, ones that are fluffy, ones that have great voice, and ones that won’t.  There will be ones I don’t like.  But I’ll tell you what.  That reading nook is the kind of place where great books get read.  Can’t you just see someone finishing War and Peace in that chair?  (Not me.  Someone else.  I can’t even get through the book jacket synopsis of that book without losing interest…) But great things can happen in a corner like that.  Great ideas for books yet unwritten can happen in a spot like that–I’m telling you, it could happen.

Like I said, I’m a big one for ambiance.  And books.  All the books.