My Mother’s “Joy of Cooking”

This vintage Joy of Cooking was my mother’s main cookbook for all 18 years I lived at home. The author’s foreword speaks from another time, addressing the “kitchen-minded” woman of long ago.

Its recipes include things my mother often made: chicken and dumplings, ham baked with pineapple rings, macaroni and cheese, split pea soup, city chicken, spinach soufflé, scalloped corn, creamed chipped beef, banana bread, tapioca pudding, chocolate cake, and an always-perfect apple pie.

I’m grateful she avoided many other offerings on these pages. She cared about flavor and tried all sorts of recipes clipped from women’s magazines as well as hand copied from library issues of Gourmet magazine. The Joy of Cooking recipe for “Beef Chop Suey” called for ground meat to be cooked with celery, onions, and mushrooms in a quarter-cup of butter, then doused with a can of tomato soup and served with fried noodles. My mother instead drove to an Asian market in Cleveland to purchase ingredients not normally found in grocery stores back then — tofu, cellophane noodles, bok choy, snow peas. Even I, the fussy eater of the family, enjoyed her attempts at Chinese cooking. My mother also talked neighbors into getting regular deliveries of fresh eggs from an innovative farmer and visited rural farm stands to get fresh fruit in season — well ahead of the farm to table movement.

I grew up glad to come home to a house smelling like supper. The aroma was reassurance that we were loved and cared for, another kind of hug. My mother’s dishes were a way of serving her time and attention to all of us, even if we were incessantly reminded in our early years to get our elbows off the table, chew with our mouths closed, and eat everything on our plates. I’m sure my picky appetite didn’t make things easier for her. I abhorred the texture of creamed corn, detested having to drink the syrup that oozed around canned fruit (“That’s where all the vitamins are!”), couldn’t bear to eat anything containing sour cream or cream cheese, and was appalled when my peas touched my potatoes. I disliked meat, especially meat that wasn’t hidden in soup or casseroles, and never quite got over the idea of cutting up animal bodies as food. It took years before I stopped asking “what was it when it was alive.” I wanted to gulp my milk, eat a few bites, then get back to playing, riding my bike, or reading a library book.

My seat at the kitchen table was next to my father, who often took pity on me by serving me only tiny morsels of meat and even then, sometimes, pretending not to notice when I snuck it onto his plate anyway. I came up with all sorts of ways to get out of eating what I disliked. I’d crumple food in my napkin. I’d hide the nastiest bits under a potato skin. I’d say I needed to go to the bathroom, then stuff my mouth with something awful in order to spit it out in the toilet. Each gambit only worked once, although I kept trying. For a while my mother attempted get-tough methods. I spent several evenings sitting in front of a plate of food I was unable to finish, staying there until bedtime. This happened most often when she made hamburgers. These were rounded hunks of ground meat cooked in a frying pan; crusty outside, pinkish inside. They were served on a slice of white bread, as we didn’t fritter money away on anything so frivolous as buns. What she called “juices” soaked through the bread, making it a wet pulp, so the whole thing had to be cut and eaten with a fork. Condiments helped hide the brown mass but some bites I chewed with grumpy reluctance contained tiny bits of gristle and that’s all it took for me to feel nauseated. I was entirely willing to sit at the table while my siblings were excused to go play. I sat there thinking of myself as a greatly misunderstood character in one of my books, sometimes willing a dramatic tear to slide down my face. One time my mother, surely fueled by yet another Parents magazine article advising her to “show children you mean business,” got my plate out of the refrigerator and insisted I eat it for breakfast. I didn’t. I won that battle, as she was unwilling to let me go to school on an empty stomach. After that she gave up. Maybe she realized I read every copy of Parents magazine that came in the mail too.

Holding this book in my hands brings to mind a line from the poem “Food,” by Brenda Hillman — “imagine all this/translated by the cry of time moving through us.” These Joy of Cooking pages serve as distinct, sometimes full body travel through time. Just her handwriting on these splattered and bent pages brings me back.

She wrote revisions to some recipes.
Noted which weren’t worth repeating.
Kept lists of useful household information between the pages.

The cookbook also served as a repository for little pictures and notes from her three children. To safeguard the privacy of my older sister and younger brother, I’ll only include one (unsigned) image by each of them.

A cartoon drawn by my sister, from her preteen years.
A cheery non-complaint by my brother when he was in elementary school.

My mother saved a pile of drawings and notes by all of her kids, but I’ll share more of my own from different years as examples.

Note from an eight-year-old.

It’s strange to look back at these offerings, recognizing how much these little expressions of love must have meant to her. But that, of course, is exactly what her children intended when they drew or wrote them.

Note from a 14-year-old, home late from a babysitting gig.

She even, unbelievably, saved a test of mine from high school — graded with a huge zero. (Naturally, I corrected the teacher’s misuse of “your.”)

I’m glad to have this now-fragile copy of a book my mother held so often throughout the decades. She’s been gone for far too many years. I’m going to give these pages a closer look to pick out a few familiar recipes I’ll be making soon.

Beyond Gratitude


“Hope has never trickled down, it has always sprung up.”
~Naomi Klein     

I have a strong urge to kneel and kiss the floor right here in CVS . Or maybe to prostrate myself facing the pharmacy. I am weak with gratitude for the vaccine I just received.

Its development is a near-miracle which began with variolation techniques used to ward off smallpox as practiced by Turkish women back in the early 1700s, or earlier by healers in southern Africa, or perhaps as far back as 1000 AD in India and China. The miracles continue today thanks to researchers who brought us the first-ever mRNA-based vaccines in record time (researchers of many nationalities and immigration statuses).    

It took weeks of calls and clicks to schedule this appointment. Now I feel disoriented.  I haven’t been in a store for nearly a year. So much stimulus — doors that open to let me in, shelves with products, actual shoppers! When I sit down with the nurse to get my inoculation I have to stop myself from using the word “grateful” in every sentence.

Grateful isn’t large enough to express this feeling. I’m not aware of a term that can fully encompass the year all of us have been through. A word that includes our isolation and fear, our efforts to pull through and pull together while apart. A word that acknowledges all the ways we’ve been divided. A word that doesn’t forget a leader who, according to experts, could have averted forty percent of Covid-19 deaths in the U.S.  A word that incorporates fear, grief, exhaustion, fury, longing, despair, hope, uncertainty, and so much more.

I wait the required 15 minutes before I can leave. I watch others who are also waiting. They look at their phones or listen to the nurse talk about potential side effects. Every person here looks beautiful to me. Already I imagine our antibodies responding to this shot, better protecting the trillions of cells that make it possible for us to breathe, smile, crack awful jokes, hug, sleep, dream.    

As I walk to my car I recognize the heaviness in my chest as the weight of guilt for getting the shot before anyone anywhere who might need it more than I do. Still, I sit in the driver’s seat, tears welling in my eyes, and whisper thank you thank you thank you. Then I turn the music up louder than I should, start the car, and drive home.

Gratitude via Mental Subtraction

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.” ~Thornton Wilder

Edible flowers as well as chard, basil, chives, and other tender plants grow on my front and back porches. I water them each day, aware a killing frost will arrive soon. I’ve been succession planting lettuces and globe carrots, but missed replanting one pot. That explains its proud crop of weeds. When I water, I water those weeds too. They might as well enjoy what time they have left.

This is my favorite season. Gorgeous autumn leaves, vivid blue skies, and a certain slant of light in late afternoon illuminating everything with a stained glass glow. Each one a reminder that what flourishes must also die. As I can, freeze, and dry our produce each fall I can’t help but think of my ancestors, yours too, whose preparations for winter were about survival.   

We are living in difficult times. Unprecedented times. Rampant disease, devastating injustice, and a climate teetering toward ever-worsening disaster. Somehow it helps me to remember our ancestors endured famine, floods, war, ill health, and oppression. Our existence is the direct consequence of ancestors who persevered despite the odds. We carry their resilience and courage in our genes.     

Thinking of my ancestors’ stories magnifies my sense of gratitude. Unlike nearly everyone who came before me I have a safe home, enough food, and access to medical care. I can connect with people anywhere in the world. I have rights, including the right to make my own choices, something that would astonish my foremothers. The very desk where I’m sitting is filled with writing and art projects as well as stacks of library books. This is true wealth.

I’m reminded of a concept called mental subtraction. It’s a version of the old school “count your blessings” approach. My mother and grandmother used it often by telling us we were lucky to have what we had, whether food on our plates or clothes on our backs, especially compared to those who had much less. (Typically in response to a child balking at yucky food or dorky outfits.)  It’s not helpful to reply to others’ misery with “it could be worse” but choosing to reflect on our own good fortune can be helpful. When we take the time to savor people and experiences we tend to be happier.

Here’s how mental subtraction works.

  • Pick something positive in your life – say a good relationship or a personal achievement or a friendly neighborhood.
  • Take a few minutes to imagine your life without it. What would be different right now?
  • Write down how you would be impacted, including emotional impact.
  • Refocus on the present moment. How do you feel now?

Research shows many benefits to regularly expressing gratitude for the positives in our lives, but the effect is even stronger when people reflect on the potential absence of these good things. It’s one thing to think, “I’m glad Jada is in my life.” It’s another to consider, “Imagine if I’d never met Jada!” Seems negative doesn’t it? But the brain’s workings habituate us to our blessings. We get used to a supportive friend or a good job. They inevitably become familiar, even when we try our best to be grateful.

But considering our lives without these positives can bring them into better focus. It’s sort of like the classic 1946 movie It’s A Wonderful Life. The main character, George Bailey, is in despair and considers suicide. An angel intervenes. He doesn’t ask George to be grateful. Instead he shows him what the world would be like if he’d never been born and those blessings never occurred. It’s a sugar-sweet movie version of mental subtraction.

In studies, people who practiced mental subtraction were happier and expressed greater appreciation than those who did not try the practice. It also boosted satisfaction with relationships and offered more positive self-reflection. Sort of like thinking back on our ancestors’ trials, a few moments of mental subtraction every now and then can reawaken us to the good in our lives.  

Image by Olcay Ertem

Kiva

In the long chill of our worst financial times I used a permanent marker to write affirming words inside our checkbook cover.

           abundance   ease   hope   purpose   prosperity   gratitude   plenty   

I also started a tradition of making a donation each time I paid our bills.  I figured we weren’t truly in trouble until we couldn’t help someone else. Sometimes it was for a local fund-raiser, but mostly it was one of many carefully vetted charities aligned with our ecological and social concerns. Each donation wasn’t much, but I made them.

I’ve kept up with that tradition and started another a few years ago thanks to a non-profit which offers a way of making the same donation do a world of good, over and over again.  It’s based on microlending. Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work, popularized microloans worldwide.  These are tiny loans to the very poor, often in combination with other services such as healthcare, savings accounts, networking, and peer support. For decades, such loans have made a difference to people with limited access to financial services, particularly for women.  Initially hyped as the solution to severe poverty, research shows the economic effects are more modest — resulting in the start-up or expansion of small businesses, more reliable sources of food and transportation, better educational opportunities, and higher overall wages. The improvement in individual lives is significant when nearly half the world lives on less than $5.50 a day,  with a quarter living on less than $3.20 a day.

Anyone can get started making microloans as small as $25 through Kiva,  lending money to people a state away or continents away. When they pay the money back, you can loan it over and over again. You might loan based on what means the most to you; perhaps to women in agriculture or refugees establishing businesses or people working in the arts. Each loan request is accompanied by a snapshot and information. For example right now Tuli, from Samoa, makes elei printed materials and needs a loan to buy more supplies. Lidia, from Uganda, runs a restaurant and needs a loan to help her buy more plates, saucepans, and staples like maize flour. Safarahmad, from Tajakistan (who paid back a previous Kiva loan) is applying for support to begin a beekeeping business. Norma, from the U.S., seeks a loan to buy equipment to expand her housecleaning services.

Kiva loans, overall, have a 96.7 percent repayment rate of loans to people in 77 countries. Since 2005, Kiva has crowdfunded more than 1.6 million loans. A billion dollars alone have been loaned to women.

I got started with $25 and, adding what I could over time, I’ve built up my Kiva account to the point where I’ve made 52 loans (and counting).  It’s astonishing to be able to offer others a portion the abundance I realize I’ve always truly had.

 

Thank Eustress

I am sitting on the ground weeding our tomato plants. I gratefully take refuge in useful tasks like gardening and cooking. Busy hands almost always un-busy my mind. But that’s not working for me right now.

Instead I’m thinking about several editing projects nearly due. I also need to plan a class, complete a volunteer training program, deal with a health insurance hassle, and prepare because we have nine people coming over for a meal tomorrow. Mental fuss is erasing me from the garden.

I take a deep breath, choosing to put myself right back where I am. That works. I hear birdsong, hear the plop of a frog in the pond. Soon I’m complimenting our plants on their sturdy stems and reveling in the breeze.

I learned the word eustress while researching my first book.  The term was created by adding the Greek prefix “eu” — meaning “good, healthy” to the word “stress,” It’s defined as a positive stress response, often generated by a demanding but worthwhile effort. Stress is inherent in growth-producing situations. We stress our bodies to reach greater levels of physical ability, breaking down muscle to build it stronger. We tear down old limitations when challenging ourselves to do something hard for us like taking on a public speaking role, mastering a new job, or asserting ourselves in a tough situation. Stressors like these, even if we haven’t exactly welcomed them, help to strengthen us.

We’ve long been told stress is bad for us. Maybe that perception is bad for us too. A few years ago a study was done to determine if our beliefs about stress affect our health. Nearly 30,000 adults were asked how much stress they’d experienced over the previous year and if they thought stress was harmful to their health. Then their health records were tracked for the next eight years. The results were surprising. People who most strongly believed that stress impacted their health, and then went on to experience a great deal of stress, exhibited a 43% increased risk of premature death over that time.

Research psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites this study at the start of her TED talk, How To Make Stress Your Friend. When we’re in a stressful situation our pulse rate  increases, we breathe faster, often sweat. Most of us interpret those physical changes as signs we aren’t coping well under pressure. But what if we saw those as indicators our bodies are energizing to meet the challenge?

Participants in another study at Harvard University were told to interpret these symptoms as helpful. They learned to recognize that a pounding heart prepares us to take action. Faster breathing brings more oxygen to our brains. People taught to view stress responses as promoting performance were less anxious, more confident, even showed fewer physical signs of stress.  And although blood vessels typically constrict during stress (making chronic stress damaging to our hearts), people who viewed the stress response as helpful exhibited more relaxed blood vessels, the sort of reaction typically seen in moments of positive emotion.

Dr. McGonigal goes on to explain something even more remarkable. She reminds us that we think of oxytocin as a love hormone. It prompts us to strengthen close relationships, especially the mother-child bond. It’s released when we snuggle with someone we love and when we play with a pet. As she says in her TED talk,

But here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you….

Oxytocin doesn’t only act on your brain. It also acts on your body, and one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. But my favorite effect on the body is actually on the heart. Your heart has receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart, and the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support, so when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone. Your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.

A final note by Dr. McGonigal. Even people who are dealing with a great deal of stress have no increase in mortality if they also reach out to help others.

I don’t mean for a moment to minimize dangerously depleting forms of stress, especially long-term stress. I’ve had some miseries the last few years that include having to cancel a book contract, getting a difficult diagnosis, and someone I love removing me from her life. My family’s crisis hamster wheel has included financial problems, health complication, and my husband being life-flighted from one hospital to another last month. (He’s going to be okay.)

I acknowledge there are much larger stress-related issues undermining people. Some of us are temperamentally more sensitive to stress,  many of us are permanently affected by adverse childhood experiences, and many deal every day with the crushing effects of poverty, prejudice, and violence.

Right now I am bringing in an armload of fresh tomatoes. There’s dirt under my fingernails and a remnants of the straw we use for mulch falling from my knees. I affirm to myself that my obligations stem from work I love. That I’m eager to volunteer in a new program. That our insurance bills result from positive medical interventions. That I am grateful to the core for every loved one coming here tomorrow. Reframing these small stresses into blessings it makes all the difference.

Gratitude Works In The ER

The practice of gratitude isn’t large enough if we’re only grateful only when things are going well.  I’ve written before about appreciating our doubts, mistakes, even our crises.  Trying to see difficulty as another blessing helps get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life.

It’s also not easy.

That concept became more evident to me when I ended up in the ER a few months ago. How I got there is a story for another time, since this tale takes place entirely in an MRI machine. Such machines are a nightmare for someone as claustrophobic as I am. Heck, I even avoid being the first person to slide in a six-person restaurant booth because two people between me and open space is too much. Unfortunately, patients experiencing any kind of neurological emergency* can’t receive medication to reduce MRI-related anxiety. The test was necessary to diagnose what was going wrong and it had to be done immediately. 

A doctor, nurse, and several other people stayed in the room with me as I was loaded into the narrow tube. I willed myself to be calm. Electronic beeping and buzzing, whirling and whacking started. It sounded quite a bit like the machine was falling apart. 

“You have to lie completely still,” I was told. I thought I was lying still.

I was cold. I was in pain. I felt trapped in that tight space, even more trapped because my head and neck were locked in a “cage” clamped to the bed. I didn’t know what was wrong with me but I’d already been told I might be having a stroke, I might need brain surgery after the MRI.

I prayed silently, but my whole body trembled. I asked my beloved deceased parents to be with me, the trembling continued. I tried affirmations, which seemed to make the trembling even worse. I was cautioned that the test might have to be repeated if I couldn’t stay entirely still. I couldn’t imagine going through it again, nor how I could do any better. 

Then I considered this might be my last day, even my last hour. What did I want from it? To appreciate every moment I had left. I began bringing to mind all I was grateful for, starting right there. I thought of the care I was getting and the wisdom of the people in that room. I realized how fortunate I was to be getting this help. My body started to soften into the experience. I pictured the faces of my loved ones in turn. It seemed as if they were right there too. By the time I decided to picture autumn trees, blue skies, and singing birds the cage was being unlocked from my face. 

Gratitude definitely isn’t a switch to turn on only when things go well. It’s a light that shines in darkness too.

 

*I’m going to be okay.

Stop, Reboot

Bad Start

to the day, what with finding

feathers, then bodies

of two hens killed by hawks.

And power out, so I can’t

work despite glaring deadlines.

 

Picking tomatoes and chard

for breakfast, I step on a bee

whose final act is to heave

her brave sword in my sole.

Startled, I skid on dew-wet grass,

fall sharply, my face whirling

a breath’s distance from roses

prickled with scarifying thorns,

 

and laugh.

 

I’d been soggy

cereal in the bowl,

mail dropped in a ditch,

a garden wizened by blight,

 

but now,

foot in lap, I pinch

out the stinger,

stabbed by gratitude

for an insect’s

venomous antidote.

Now all I see is a shining

curtain of light pulled open

to the third act of a comedy

performed as it

is lived.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Gyroscope Review  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Spinning Straw Into Gold

laughing at adversity, it's all good,

Anne Anderson Wikimedia Commons

Annoyances seem to come with lessons built in, at least around here.

I trundle down the basement steps clutching piles of wet jeans so I can hang them close to our wood burning furnace, saving a bit of propane our clothes dryer might have used.  That seems like a farce when we discover a fitting on the propane tank has been leaking, letting hundreds of dollars worth of gas drift away in an ecologically irresponsible manner.

We have fresh milk, butter, and cheese thanks to our cow Isabelle. We avoid calculating if we’re actually saving money this way, but it’s obvious when it costs us. Like now, when we couldn’t harvest a single bale of hay last summer due to flooded fields. These days we have to buy each mouthful of hay she eats in exchange for the food she provides us.

What I can’t grow and preserve myself, I like to get in bulk from a natural foods co-op. It helps us afford organic food. But not when I find grain moths in my 25 pound container of buckwheat groats. Guess the chickens get buckwheat added to their diets and my kids won’t have to complain about pancakes the color of wet cardboard.

Sometimes I’m tempted to indulge in a Rumpelstiltskin-like tantrum. I don’t want to hear about the money we need to fix a tractor. I don’t want to clean a pile of dog puke or stay up late to meet another deadline or deal with unspeakably stinky laundry. I’d like the straw of everyday annoyances to turn into gold.

But then I pay attention.

Right now two of my sons are sitting by the fireplace talking and laughing with their father. My daughter is coming in from the barn, snow melting on her hair and on the bucket of eggs she’s carrying. The small dogs are wrestling at my feet while our old German shepherd rolls over to avoid watching such unruliness. It’s all perfect — exactly as it is. My socks still have holes, the window molding is unfinished, there are muddy footprints by the door. But none of that matters.

This is golden.

A 2012 throwback post from our farm site

Be Pollyanna

Image by Healzo

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments

when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”  ~Thornton Wilde

 

The word “pollyanna” is defined as:

  1. an excessively or blindly optimistic person
  2. unreasonably or illogically optimistic

but the character by that name, in the 1913 book by Eleanor H. Porter (and in the 1960 movie version), is far wiser than this.

Pollyanna was the daughter of an idealistic missionary who, in his dying days, taught his daughter the “glad game.”  The game is simple. In a situation that seems unpleasant, even dire, find a reason to feel glad. It’s a courageous way to face overwhelming circumstances.

Pollyanna certainly faced tragedies. She lived in poverty with her parents and relied on the mercy of donated goods. When her parents died, Pollyanna was sent to live with her wealthy, disapproving aunt. The aunt decided her niece should reside in the stifling attic rather than be allowed to use any of the comfortable bedrooms that were available. When the girl opened an attic window to find relief from the unrelenting heat she was punished. But Pollyanna shared the glad game with anyone willing to listen. She explained to her aunt’s servant, Nancy, how her father started the game back when she’d hoped to find a doll in the missionary barrel.

“Why, we began it on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel.”

“CRUTCHES!”

“Yes. You see I’d wanted a doll, and father had written them so; but when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn’t any dolls come in, but the little crutches had. So she sent ‘em along as they might come in handy for some child, sometime. And that’s when we began it….The game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ‘twas,” rejoined Pollyanna, earnestly. “And we began right then—on the crutches.”

“Well, goodness me! I can’t see anythin’ ter be glad about—getting’ a pair of crutches when you wanted a doll!”

Pollyanna clapped her hands.

“There is—there is,” she crowed. “But I couldn’t see it, either, Nancy, at first,” she added, with a quick honesty. “Father had to tell it to me.”

“Well, then suppose YOU tell ME,” almost snapped Nancy.

“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—‘EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly.

According to neuroscience, Pollyanna was on to something.

Being mindful of what we’re grateful for helps us pay closer attention to what’s beautiful and meaningful in our daily lives. There’s peace to be found in ripples of rain on a puddle, a neighbor’s smile, birdsong,  the smell of coffee brewing, a child’s hug.

According to research, the practice of writing a daily gratitude list boosts our sense of well-being and gives us a brighter outlook on life while also increasing our pro-social behaviors. An attitude of gratitude makes for happier kids and more satisfying relationships. Gratitude is correlated with more empathy, greater generosity, and less materialistic attitudes. It also helps us handle stress better, sleep better, reduces inflammation, and benefits our hearts.

The power of gratitude is so vast that it persists over time. One study asked participants to write down three things that went well each day, along with what caused them to go well, for one full week. They were only two percent happier that week, but follow-up tests showed their happiness continued to increase for six months afterwards. Symptoms of depression decreased even more, declining by 28 percent in that week and continuing to improve slightly over the next six months.

Even when going through overwhelming difficulties, being mindful of our blessings can retrain our brains to be more positive. Gratitude causes the brain to produce dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters related to pleasure and balanced mood. Focusing on appreciation tunes our minds to feel appreciative more often. As neuroscientist Alex Korb writes in The Upward Spiral

“It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.”

Unlike Pollyanna, we shouldn’t gloss over or ignore our difficulties. Research shows that consciously recognizing and naming our negative feelings actually lessens their impact on us, reducing our emotional reactivity to worry, fear, and despair. And there’s power in letting others know they’ve had a negative effect on us, even after significant time has passed.

Before things got better for Pollyanna, they got worse. A car accident left her in need of those very crutches and even her glad game didn’t save her from despair. But by then, her kindly ways had earned love from many people and the love they returned made the difference.

This week I am grateful beyond words. My oldest son had emergency brain surgery last week and after five days in ICU his prognosis is excellent. I’m grateful to live in a time and place when saving him is possible; grateful for skilled and caring medical people at Medina Hospital and Fairview Hospital; grateful for so many wonderful people offering their love, prayers, and help. Every single thing in our lives takes on a sort of luminous glow through the lens of gratitude.  As the mystic Meister Eckhart said back in the 13th century, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, that would suffice.”

17 Ways to Show Authors Your Love

image: vjcx.com

We know how to love celebrities and athletes in our culture. We hashtag them, go to their performances/games, read about them, imitate them, talk about them, and in many other ways make these people an ongoing presence in our lives. (Note: there may be a strange reason we’re so obsessed with celebrities.)

It’s less common to love writers, far less common to show it.

Today’s publishing houses expect authors (other than the most commercially promising ones) to do their own book marketing. We’re expected to blog, tweet, arrange book signings and readings, do interviews, and otherwise connect with potential readers as if there’s nothing awkward about begging people to buy our words.

But we know that books, articles, essays, poems, posts, (actually, all forms of writing) live on only when they’re read. It’s even better if they’re discussed, shared, and remembered. My writer friends and I do our best to promote one another’s work to a wider audience. Most writers do this for each other. If you’re inspired, take a tip or two from us and show some authors your love.

Share a great author interview or book review. Share a passage from a book, article, blog post, or poem. Toss it out there on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, whatever platform you use.

Quote. If you’re writing a report or giving a presentation, sprinkle in a relevant quote or line of poetry. It’ll add another dimension to your work.

Review books you love on Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, wherever you go to check reader reviews. You can make it easy on yourself by simply leaving a bunch of stars. Take it up a notch with a glowing one-line opinion. On Amazon, you only need to click “like” to boost a book or other people’s reviews of the book. Your viewpoint really does help potential readers find what to read next.

Advocate for writing that has changed your outlook, expanded your interests, led you in entirely new directions. A few months ago Facebook bristled with personal lists of 10 Life Changing Books. I love hearing what books impact other people and I’m often inspired to read those titles too. (Here are 10 that occur to me at the moment: The Secret GardenOriginal Wisdom, The Continuum Concept,  Nature and the Human Soul,  A Paradise Built in Hell Pronoia Is the Antidote for ParanoiaMan’s Search for MeaningBeyond WarSpontaneous Evolutionanything by Charles Eisenstein.)

Give books as gifts. They make wonderful presents for birthday, holidays, and milestone celebrations. They make wonderful business gifts for clients and great promotions for related products. They’re great to give simply when it occurs to you that a specific book and a specific person might go well together. Give books to children for special occasions but also for fun. Don’t forget to leave an inscription even for the youngest. If you like, pair a book with a small related present. Tea, coffee, or something more spirited is a perfect accompaniment to any book gift.

Try something different. Indulge in your favorite genres and let yourself branch out from there. A fan of historical novels set in a certain era? Try poetry from that time period, non-fiction books about the art or science of the era, biographies of people from that time, as well as history magazines and related sites. I’ve come across writing I normally wouldn’t read only to discover a passion for science-y novels, tomes on evolutionary biology, sites offering vintage maps, work by outsider artists, and other fascinations.

Request. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy a fraction of the books I read. Instead, I’m a unrepentant library addict. If there’s a book you’d like, order it from your local library. They’ll call or email you when it’s available. If they don’t own a copy, ask them to purchase it. Some library systems put request forms online, other systems prefer you go directly to a librarian to request a book acquisition.

Hang out with other book lovers. I’m a long-time member of a book club. It prompts me to read books I wouldn’t normally read and our wide-ranging discussions are a delight. And our boys’ book club lasted till our kids all went off to college, over nine years of lively bookish gatherings.  You can start up a book club with friends or join an existing group. Check out nearby clubs through Reader’s Circle, your local library, or Meetup.

Offer books for sale through your business. If you have a bike repair shop, offer guides to bike trails along with some bike-riding memoirs. If you run a stand at a farmer’s market, offer a few cookbooks and urban farming volumes. If you own an art gallery, sprinkle a few poetry and art books among your offerings.

Give magazine subscriptions as gifts. There’s a wealth of not-so-mainstream options, from boat-building magazines to literary journals to kids’ science publications.

Recommend. Create your own list of favorites on a topic via Amazon’s Listmania. Perhaps “Little-Known Poetry Books You Should Read…” or “Alternative Education Books We Use….” While you’re at it, search all the Listmania lists of interest to you.

Link. An insight or idea sticking with you? Link to (or at least attribute) books or author sites when you write about ideas they’ve prompted in you.

Talk about writing you love. I tend to go on and on with vast enthusiasm about what I’m reading. I adore memoirs from the sublime to the hilarious: A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Kick Me by Paul Feig. Beautifully written, unforgettable novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,  The History of Love by Nicole Kraus, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Animal books, a worthy indulgence, including The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. Sci-fi like The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. And  books that don’t fit in any category like Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Really, read these books!

Expose local authors. Ask an author to serve as an expert, answering a question or two for an interview to be published online or in print. Invite an author to do a reading or give a talk to your organization, club, or business either in-person or via Skype. Talk up local authors with people you know.

Promote. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association started a YouTube channel called Parapalooza! Submit a video of yourself reading a passage from a favorite book to parapalooza@sibaweb.com. If you live in the UK, contact Steve Wasserman of Read Me Something You Love. He’ll come out to record your reading of a passage you choose, along with some conversation. If it’s poetry you adore, read one you love aloud for Record-a-Poem. You can also reach out to others in your community who’d like to share a favorite poem through the Favorite Poem Project or start up a poetry-sharing group on Meetup.

Read already. Titles piling up on your Kindle, overdue library books, a teetering stack of magazines next to the couch are all evidence that you want to read. But you’ve got more to do than you’ve got time. Admit it to yourself, you’ll never defeat your in-box. Might as well go lie on the grass or in the tub or on your couch and read!

Connect. Follow authors on Facebook or follow their tweets. Write to them care of their publishers. You might send a brief note about how much you enjoyed a book or how it or improved your life. You might send suggestions, questions, a cheerful aside. Writing is a solitary occupation. When an author hears that his or her work made a difference, I guarantee it’ll have an impact. On a few rare occasions readers of my first book let me know it changed the way they parent or educate and how that’s impacted their lives. These communications are the sort of wealth I’d never believed possible. Utterly priceless.

Some days I like to imagine a world where we love our writers and artists and scientists and volunteers with the same passion we show celebrities. A girl can dream.

Alejandro Mallea's flickr photostream

Alejandro Mallea’s flickr photostream

“The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats.”

Dorothy Parker