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Maira Kalman on walking as a source of creativity.



How to Be: Back on the horse without dwelling on it

Being present is really good. Until you’ve made it a “to do,” that is, and then dwell on whether or not you’ve been present enough. Or, I should say, beat yourself up over whether or not you’ve been present enough.

For me, my love is writing, and I feel really good when I’m writing regularly, and it helps me feel present. I feel present because I’m in tunewith what’s going on around me more, because I’m noticing details more, because details are so critical to writing. So not writing, therefore, makes me feel not as great, and not as present. I’d fallen off the blogging wagon for what I thought was just about a month, but what turns out to be almost two, and that made me sad to see. But the good part is that I feel happy to be getting back on the writing horse.

Stopping to smell the flowers — it’s spring! — is an easy and lovely way to be present.

So many times in my first blog, I’d written posts apologizing for having disappeared for months at a time. Every time I’d restart, I’d feel more and more like that cliched abusive person who tells you, “I’m so sorry for doing ‘x.’ I promise it’s the last time,” only to eventually do “x” again, and then promise again that it was the last time “x” would happen.

When I first started typing this analogy here, I found myself thinking it was too strong,  too sensitive a subject to compare blogging laziness to. But the thing I immediately realized is, it’s not too sensitive a subject to use here. Why? Because there is an abusive relationship going on here, and that abusive relationship is with myself.

Call it crazy, but if you think about it, are you kind to yourself? Do you congratulate yourself for a job well done and leave it at that? Do you cut yourself some slack if you don’t finish the project you wanted to finish last weekend? Or lose the weight you wanted to lose last month? 

Think about it. Say you complained to a friend, “I’m so upset that I didn’t work on that project last weekend. All I did was sit on the couch and watch movies all day.” What would your friend say? She’d probably say something like, “You needed to rest. Look at how crazy your life has been! You’ll do it when you have a moment to breathe.”

But what do you say to yourself? If you’re anything like me, it’s probably something like, “Ugh, you’re so lazy. Just let the time tick by and keep saying you’re going to do it. You never do it, though. You probably never will.”

Imagine if a friend said this to you. Would you keep her around? I hope not! But think about this: Your own voice is around all of the time. ALL of the time. How often are you telling yourself nice things? How often are you cutting yourself some slack? 

While considering how to re-enter blogging this afternoon, I realized I was beating myself up about not writing, and then realized this incessant mean-girl talk was doing nothing but keeping me from writing. Becoming hip to this little fact was a breakthrough moment! And it was thanks, in part, to being present: Being present with the feelings I was having as I cracked open this blog again, and then deciding I was just going to put pen to paper — or fingers to keyboard — and see what happened. What did I get? A really good lesson in the importance of being present with what’s going on in my head.

Getting back on the horse — whether it’s with writing or exercising or completing a project or eating right — is, in and of itself, not hard at all, really. It’s getting past the inner critic that’s the problem. So, keep an eye — or an ear — on what you’re telling yourself when you’re feeling less-than-inspired. Pay attention. Be present! Then think about what a real friend would tell you, and use that. Being our own worst critics is probably the number one roadblock to success in anything, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. The answer? Being present. It’s almost too easy! But let’s try it and see where we go!

Famous last words … ;)

Photo by M. Renee Buckley



How to Be … Present with your food: Make it. (And a guacahummus recipe to get you started!)

Here’s my guacahummus, inspired by this delightful recipe I found on Shutterbean.com. More on this later … 

I recently blogged about my delight in trying cacao nibs for the first time and how they made a wonderful and sugar-free addition to my homemade oatmeal bars. This discovery represented a major win for me in my battle with apparent sugar addiction as well as my need for chocolate at least once a day … I guess that’s an addiction, too, then, huh? Sigh.

Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that after reading that post, my husband wondered aloud, “What does this have to do with being present?” While first I was frustrated that he needed me to spell this out, it then occurred to me that if he’s wondering this, well, then, others probably are, too. So, for him and anyone else wondering why I’m talking about food quite a bit on a blog focused on being more present in our lives, allow me to explain …

Being present with our food isn’t easy these days. It’s just not. We’re all busy, and buying pre-made items such as granola bars and even full-on meals has become the norm. Even when those things we’re buying are organic, they’re still made far from our homes, and therefore are old, and therefore are often created with added ingredients to keep them “fresh” longer. But, naturally, they’re not fresh. So, there are two strikes against them already: 1. Made with preservatives of some kind; 2. Not fresh.

The third strike is a bit more metaphysical, but, stay with me here for a moment: 3. They’re not made with love. 

I know. Laugh all you want. I know it sounds quite cheesy. But, the truth is, this matters. At least I think it does. Here’s why: When I grab a store-bought granola bar from the cabinet and distractedly tear into it, I enjoy the chocolately chippity goodness and sweet, sugary chewiness just as much as the next gal, I do. But, before I know what’s happened, that food is gone, I have crumbs on or about my face, and the sugar-crash, well … shhh … it’s around the corner!

On the other hand, when I’m lucky enough to have some of my own bars on hand (and by own, I mean bars I’ve made at home, with other people’s recipes … not my own recipes), the experience is a tad bit different. First, as I explained in my oatmeal bar post, the Glad Press ‘N’ Seal wrappers are a bit tough to rip open (which just means they’re really sealed nice and tightly!), so I’ve got a moment of unwrapping to endure before it’s eat time. Then, once I’m eating it, it just tastes different. Simpler. Cleaner. Less clogged with junk. Better, I think. And the whole sugar crash thing? Not even an issue.

So, my point is, cooking for yourself — when time allows — helps you connect with your food in a way prepackaged foods cannot. You appreciate what’s going into your mouth because you’ve invested your time to create it. You might savor it a bit more, knowing that when it’s gone, you can’t just grab it off a shelf and toss it into your shopping cart. You’ve got to approach homemade foods with a bit of intention, an intention to nourish yourself with ingredients you choose precisely. It’s a way of saying, “Hey, I’m worth it!” And as silly as that sounds, it actually works. 

Cooking for yourself — or baking, or just chopping up some fruits or veggies — is a little way of spoiling yourself that you can’t feel guilty about. Luxury isn’t always easy to come by, but when you give yourself the luxury of time to prepare your own food, and time to enjoy it, you realize you’re a little richer for it … and not necessarily around the middle, either.

Now for that guacahummus recipe!

I love hummus. I love guacamole. Imagine my delight, then, when I found the perfect spawn of these two delicious delights in my BJ’s store two weeks ago. I ate two big containers of this hybrid heaven in one week. One. Week. Given that I don’t really like going to BJ’s, but needed more of this treasured treat, I took to my trusty friend Google and found this wonderful and ridiculously easy recipe, below. A food processor brings this spreadable, dip-able madness together in mere minutes! Enjoy!


Closely adapted from Shutterbean.com

Makes about two cups, maybe a bit more.

  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1 15-ounce can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
  • 1 ripe avocado
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • Juice of half a lime (some may want to do one fruit or the other, taste as you go)
  • A few sprigs or up to 3 cups fresh cilantro leaves, optional

Pop garlic clove into food processor (with cilantro leaves if using) and process until finely chopped. Add the chickpeas and avocado and continue processing. While the processor is running, slowly pour a stream of olive oil into the mixture. Continue processing as you add lemon and/or lime juice. Process until smooth. Taste and add more juice, salt or pepper as desired and serve! (Note: To make this more like guacamole, consider adding some red onion.) (Tip: Store guacahummus with the avocado pit in the mixture to keep fresh longer … how’s that for natural preservative?!)

Photos by M. Renee Buckley



One of my favorite bloggers wrote so eloquently on being present -- Emily Malone at Daily Garnish. Love her!



How to Be … Cool. Calm. And nice to yourself.
I’m posting this photo today as a short and sweet reminder to be calm. To be peaceful. And, most of all, to be kind to myself.
Yesterday I found myself beginning to pick apart my posts and my overall purpose with this blog, and I realized this morning that the (unhealthy) perfectionist in me is rearing her little head. Having been through this before, I can now recognize that when she comes out, nothing good comes of her.
So, I’m flinging up this peaceful picture I took of Bar Harbor, Maine, in November as a pretty reminder to be nice to myself. Being present helps me recognize these dangerous moments of mean self-talk. And then it helps may say, “Hey! Don’t you talk to her like that!” Or something like that …

How to Be … Cool. Calm. And nice to yourself.

I’m posting this photo today as a short and sweet reminder to be calm. To be peaceful. And, most of all, to be kind to myself.

Yesterday I found myself beginning to pick apart my posts and my overall purpose with this blog, and I realized this morning that the (unhealthy) perfectionist in me is rearing her little head. Having been through this before, I can now recognize that when she comes out, nothing good comes of her.

So, I’m flinging up this peaceful picture I took of Bar Harbor, Maine, in November as a pretty reminder to be nice to myself. Being present helps me recognize these dangerous moments of mean self-talk. And then it helps may say, “Hey! Don’t you talk to her like that!” Or something like that …



How to Be … Crazy for cacao!

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a bonafide chocoholic. This chocoholic habit, though, doesn’t match well with my recent attempts to cut back — way back — on my sugar consumption. (I mean, how’s a girl gonna be present when she’s riding sugar highs all over town?). Given that chocolate has a bunch of sugar in it, I’ve been faced with a wee bit of a problem.

In an earlier attempt to trick my tongue into eating something that looked like chocolate, but had a healthier profile, I tried carob. Blech!

"No wonder they use this stuff on those gourmet dog treats!" I thought as I reached for anything to replace the carob-induced horror in my mouth. "My dog finds sticks delectable, too!"

After this run-in, you can imagine my extreme skepticism when it came to trying yet another healthier chocolate “replacement.” This one, my friends, was cacao. (Pronounced, according to this Merriam-Webster audio guide, as “ka-kay-o.” And who knew that Merriam-Webster had an audio pronunciation guide? Flash-forward to four hours later and me still listening to pronunciations!)

Anyway, given that cacao is actually raw chocolate as opposed to just a chocolate impersonator (Ahem, carob!), I was willing to give it a shot. I bought an on-sale bag of cacao nibs at Whole Foods this weekend, and wished for the best.

Upon opening the bag of this “Mayan superfood,” I was pleasantly surprised by what smelled like a very chocolatey aroma. So far, so good. Upon popping one of the tiny nibs into my mouth, though, it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, but, it would do. Not has horrible as the uber disappointing time I first eagerly gobbled up some of my mom’s Baker’s Chocolate as a kid (the horror!), but not as delicious as my Ghirardelli Twilight Delight 72 Percent Cacao. (Ahh, so that’s why it’s not 100 percent.)

Given that I didn’t gag, I decided to press on, and go ahead and add a quarter cup of these nibs to the batter of my delicious On the Go Basic Oatmeal Squares, courtesy of the healthy baking-genius Angela Liddon of Oh She Glows.

What happened next, folks, was healthy snack-bar madness! The bars were amazingly delicious with the cacao nibs, and gave me the feeling and taste of having a chocolate chip bar, minus the sugar-laden chocolate chips! Success!

What’s better? I just checked out the nutrition facts on these nibs, and one ounce has 4 grams of protein and 9 — yes, 9! — grams of fiber! Zero grams of sugar. What?! Chocolate morsels could never do that.

And given that the store-bought bars are filled with sugary chocolate and then more sugar, I use the miracle that is Glad Press ‘N’ Seal to individually wrap these bad-boys so I’ve got a healthy snack to grab and go whenever I need. It works like a charm. A little too good, according to my husband: “Those bars are really hard to open.” Just what I was going for.

So, here I sit, chipping away at my sugar addiction, one crazy cacao bar at a time. Coo coo for Cocoa Puffs? That’s so something a chocoholic would say …

Photos by M. Renee Buckley



How to Be … A trend-setter without trying. (Beverage edition.)

This is silly, but it’s still on my mind this morning, so, what the heck? I’ll let you in on it.

I don’t know about you, but for me, most of my day is spent in my head (hence my pursuit of being present). Rushing here and there, all the while thinking about where I need to be next, who I need to see next, what I need to do next, I can say I hardly ever am where I physically am.

"Crap, I’m going to be late for class," I think as I speed along to my first Conversational Italian for Beginners class (offered so generously by "Mamma Licia" through the Salem, MA, Parks and Recreation Department). 

"Crap. I have to stop and get something to drink. I’m gonna pass out,” I also think, then swerve into the Rite Aid along the way.

While I wish to get something caffeinated — a Diet Dr. Pepper, to be exact — I’ve been on a good streak of eliminating fake sweeteners (aka, chemicals) and caffeine from my diet, and I really don’t want to screw that up now. So, faced with the wall of cold beverages offered by Rite Aid Pharmacy, I select two bottles of flavored seltzer water (and then throw a Diet Dr. Pepper into the mix in case I just can’t stay awake … I know … but it’s for backup …).

Back in the car, I crack open my lemon seltzer, and then enjoy a lovely lemon-scented shower of seltzer. Once I mop up the mess and the fizz settles, I sip and enjoy my bubbly refreshment. 

Arriving just on time, I run into my class, awkwardly repeat back “Buona sera” to my teacher as I come dashing in, and settle in for my first real Italian lesson. Perfetto!

Week two comes along, and once again I’m running a little too close to perfectly on time (rather than at least a minute early), and again I dash in, set my sparkling water on the table, and proceed with learning the right way to say, “Penna,” which means pen, and which means something very different if you don’t pronounce both n’s. It’s a body part. I’ll leave it at that.

Week three was last night. And here’s what I noticed: Of the five of us in class, including the teacher, now three of us had sparkling waters on the table. Wha?!

First, I’d noticed the single-serving bottle of San Pellegrino in my peripheral vision, and thought, “Mmm. That’s my favorite. What a cute little bottle that is.”

But then, I noticed my teacher — a native Italian who hails from Milan, arguably the trendiest city in Italy, I should add — also reach for a beverage: A Stop & Shop bottle of lemon-flavored seltzer! What the?! Had I done this? Had I sparked a sparkling water revolution within the tiny walls of this Park and Recreation-sponsored Italian for Beginners class? Why, I think I had! 

This thrills me, and I’ll tell you why. On the night of my first class, as I rushed into the room — the last to arrive — I remember getting settled and then looking around to check out just who else was spending their Thursday nights in the likely haunted Salem Senior Center, attempting to learn a little bit of this delicious language we call Italian, or, Italiano. I spotted three other women, all likely at least 10 years my senior, giddily gathered around the small table we shared, ready to be taken away to a land where life is savored and language sounds as delectable as the regional cuisine. I also noticed two of the ladies had big foam cups of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee on the table next to their books, and I remember thinking, “Huh. So I wasn’t the only one who needed to come armed with liquid support. I’m glad I didn’t opt for the caffeine now, though.” (7:30 p.m. is way too late for me to be having anything stimulating, anyway.)

Remembering this observation I’d made that first evening, last night I found myself thinking, “I wonder if these women were noticing the same thing about me on that first night, that I’d needed to bring some kind of beverage delight as well. I wonder if they thought better of their late-night caffeine choice as a result, and instead were inspired by my choice to bring their own chemical- and caffeine-free drink, too!”

See? This is a bit silly, right? But, maybe it’s true. Maybe, in the hustle and bustle and distraction of our own lives, we’re actually making impressions on others and affecting their choices on some of the most random — but in this case, health-altering, I think — things. Isn’t that incredible? We matter. Our actions and choices matter. When you stop to really consider that notion, you realize, we are amazing.

Photos by M. Renee Buckley



How to Be … Aware of the beauty in the mundane.

As I prepare for what can only be explained as the miracle of getting to go on my second trip to Italy in one year’s time, I’ve been reading a lot about the country, most recently through the eyes of famed “Under the Tuscan Sun” author Frances Mayes. The book I’m currently reading is titled, “Bella Tuscany.”

Mayes’ description of what seems like every square inch of her Tuscan villa is remarkable, to say the least. The detail she describes, the nuances she notices … she’s an expert at savoring each darling trait of this place she calls home during her summers off. If only we could all find some minutia to savor in our actual day-to-day travels. Imagine the sparkle the mundane could take on.

Naturally, I didn’t come upon this thought while reading her account. Instead, I read with the eagerness of a traveler counting down the days until her next adventure, wholly submerged in the world of this Italian paradise, and aggravated and agitated when pulled away and back to my “real life.”

But something in her descriptions of the landscape of Cortona, Italy, made me ponder this notion after yoga Monday afternoon. I was sitting on a bench in a sweaty, exhausted heap, sipping water and telling myself there was no way I would take one step out of there until my entire water supply was consumed. To pass the time, I scooted toward the window and gazed out. The scene was less-than-inspiring: A split-level parking lot loaded with cars; ugly, industrial-looking parking lot lights lining one side of the lot; dried-out patches of grass with large, dirty-looking sand deposits lapping at the edges. Then I noticed the trees. 

"Fortunate that cypress shadows fall in wide bands across the sunlit road; fortunate that on the first day back in Cortona I see a carpenter carrying boards, his tabby cat balanced on his shoulders, tail straight up, riding like a surfer."

This is how “Bella Tuscany” begins. And I remember re-reading that opening a few times as I got acquainted with my new book. And, apparently, it stayed with me.

The trees I noticed in the North Andover, Massachusetts, parking lot were, of course, not cypress. But, what they were doing was special … they were casting “wide bands across the sunlit road.” How gorgeous is that image? It stayed with me, clearly, and made me see the average-looking shrubs in this parking lot with a little bit of sparkle. (Granted, I think the shrubs were planted to camouflage a giant electrical box of some sort, but … they did a fine job of doing that, at least!)

In this moment of seeing the beauty in the ordinary surroundings of nature — even in an ugly parking lot — I realized, I do have different eyes when I’m traveling. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to wear those same eyes at home from time to time?” 

Maybe it’s not entirely possible. I must admit, since my cypress revelation Monday, I can’t recall having another one of these “beauty hidden in the ordinary” moments. But wouldn’t it be nice, seeing beauty all around us, rather than looking across the globe for it? It would. That’s all. It would.

Photos by M. Renee Buckley



How to Be ... Sure you really want to stick with that whole being a writer dream: You read this post and say, "Huh. I still want to be a writer."

Writing and Money, an analysis from a new to midlist author

Writing is excessive drudgery. It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.
Complaints medieval monks scribbled in the margins of Illuminated manuscripts (via explore-blog)

Va bene! My clumsy attempts at learning Italiano are not a total loss! Ciao!

How to Be … A little more kind to yourself. (And the story of my imaginary nemesis.)

Last night, as I found myself worrying about a possible hip injury/strain sustained during my second ever Bikram yoga class (taken the day before), I was reminded of a weird fact about myself: As a child, rather than palling around with an imaginary friend, I actually had an imaginary nemesis. Yes, you read that right. An imaginary nemesis. And her name was Anne.

Anne wasn’t someone I spent a ton of time with, but she’d pop up from time to time to challenge me to various contests, the most vivid of which was a frequent swimming battle come bath time. I’m pretty sure I would win most times, if not all. For self-esteem’s sake, let’s say I did.

Anyway, the reason my old foe Anne popped into my head was that I’d earlier Googled, “Is Bikram yoga bad for joints?” and the answer, in a nutshell, seemed to be: Yes, if you’re overly competitive and push yourself too hard during class. I think the New York Times article also said something about participants being “hard-core Type A personalities.”

"Hmph," I thought as I read it. "I just can’t escape this Type A curse. And dammit. I probably did push it too hard yesterday. Great.”

And this bullying train of thought proceeded to beat me up.

"Why do I have to be so intense? I can’t even enjoy a hot yoga class without my Type A demons ruining it!"

I found myself wishing away my Type A personality. Wishing I could be more laid back, less “hard-core,” as the Times so ineloquently put it.

But then, I remembered my good foe Anne.

"Wait a minute. I’ve been competitive since I was a tiny kid having imaginary swim battles in the tub!" I realized. "This is in me. Deep. This was here before I even learned how to take a shower (I feared the shower, and stuck with the tub for a long time … but that’s another post for another time). This was here from the beginning.”

Realizing that I was “born this way,” so to speak (thanks, Gaga!), made me realize another thing: Man, am I mean to myself.

As I thought about the typical things I say to myself in a day (or think to myself, rather, though sometimes I do admit I talk to myself. Guilty!), I began to see a pretty ugly picture. 

"Imagine talking that way to a friend? A loved one? You’d never!" I thought to myself. So why, then, are we OK to talk to ourselves this way? 

I decided in that moment, to start being more aware of the thoughts I have throughout the day. For every mean thought — “You barely wrote today, Renee. Lazy.” — a nice thought must follow: “But you did research writing techniques and styles. And, you took your dogs for a long, lovely walk on a 80-degree March day!”

I realize this bad thought/good thought habit will take some getting used to, but, it’s a start, right? Noticing just one unsupportive thought and matching it up with one encouraging one per day will have an affect. It will. Give it a shot. Challenge your inner nemesis. I don’t know about you, but Anne’s going down.