Headphones Are My Sunglasses

Wendy Williams says that if you don't want to talk to people out in public you should throw on sunglasses and move about your day. Apparently sunglasses, when worn indoors, are the international symbol for "don't talk to me."  When it comes to wearing sunglasses, I know it's unconventional, but I have trouble with the way the world looks through them. Like, literally. So, instead of sunglasses, I throw on a pair on conspicuous headphones, and blast music into my ears to shut out the world. It may seem, on the surface, to be isolating, or even rude, but the reason I do it has more to do with mental health than being a dick. (Even though there very much a dick version of me, and her name is "Angry Billie.")

Anxiety and I have been well acquainted ever since my early 20s, when, for no reason in particular, I started suffering from intense and constant panic attacks. Those ebbed into occasional panic attacks, and then general anxiety, and then, after I went off of birth control, WHOOSH, it seemed to all but vanish. Until...and, of course, there was an until...I had my daughter.

Along with welcoming my beautiful, very spirited daughter, The Bird, I also got a heaping helping of postpartum anxiety which consistently kicked my ever-loving ass on and off for more than two years. Since then, I have overhauled myself in an effort to kick anxiety's ever-loving ass, and (mostly) won. And as my own problems cleared, I realized The Bird had some of her own issues, one of which is that she hates when strangers looked at her in public.

One day I said to her, "Don't look at them. You can just pretend they don't exist." Sound advice, I thought, and it seemed to help. Another time, I handed her a pair of headphones so she could do just that. It made her more comfortable, and everyone was happy. AMEN.

Then, on New Years Eve this year, for some stupid reason, I thought that the grocery store wouldn't be busy and planned a week's worth of shopping for that moment in time. GAR. It was so crowded that I had a sudden, familiar flush of anxiety. The volume of people in the store, for me, was like absorbing an energy bomb. It was frenetic, and I could feel the movement of all the people in their frantic states of trying to just get out and fast. The thought in my head was, "I am never going to make it through this trip without getting a panic attack."

In an effort to calm myself, I took a deep breath, and between the exhalation and inhalation I had a moment of divine clarity. I thought, "If I were The Bird,  what would I tell me to do?" And I reached into my purse, grabbed my headphones, put on my favorite playlist, and I ROCKED THAT MOTHERFUCKER OUT. I mean, realllllly. I got all my shopping done, and I noticed, miraculously, that my music kept my vibe in check. It prevented me absorbing the collective energy and instead, created my own. In fact, by the time I left the store, I actually felt better than when I went it.

It was a revelation.

Sometimes being in public is just hard for me. Interacting with people when I am buzzing and ripe with anxiety is challenging. While sunglasses work well for resting bitch face and puffy eyes, they don't shut out the world the way a set of headphones does. So when you see me, rocking through the aisles of the local grocery, and I smile at you with my wireless headphones blaring music, it's my way of vibe-checking myself and getting through my day. I will offer you a smile, but the headphones say clearly, "I am not down to talk today." They are my proverbial sunglasses. 

To The Mama With PPD or PPA

Dear Mama with Postpartum Depression or Anxiety,

When my daughter was just a few weeks old, family members and friends would ask me if they could hold her. I was so relieved that someone wanted to hold her, I would happily hand her over...but the second that she was in someone else's arms, I would be flooded with anxiety and visions of them dropping her on the cement patio, or accidentally banging her tiny, fragile skull into the corner of the table. I could see the blood running from her tiny head, and it sent waves of panic through me. I was terrified they were going to accidentally kill my newborn.

I was so confused because I wanted physical space between myself and my daughter, but I was even more afraid once I actually got it. There was no winning. So I sat there, frozen as people held her, and unable to tolerate it for long. When my mother-in-law would urge me to take some time to lie down and rest, I couldn't. I was consumed with what was happening in the next room. It took more energy to will myself to lay in bed than it did to hold her.

A few months later, I put my bopping daughter in her excersaucer, this big, ridiculous contraption where she could bounce and spin, and I started on dinner. I was cutting carrots when I was suddenly overcome with fear that I might cut off her finger. She was no where near me, but I struggled to complete the task of cutting these carrots because I could swear, they were her fingers. I knew that something was deeply wrong, but I was so horrified by own thoughts that I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone about them.

Each day when I opened my eyes, it didn't matter how much I had slept, I was beyond exhausted. I was paranoid about people's intentions, and I was literally dizzy all the time. When my husband would leave for work, fresh panic would wash over me...what was I supposed to do all day long? I would lay on the floor and play with my daughter because I felt so dizzy that I sure I was going to pass out and drop her. I would watch the walls and I could swear they were narrowing in on me. I thought that perhaps they would crush us.

I would count the hours, sometimes the minutes, until my husband would arrive home. If he was late, I would begin nervously pacing, wondering why he was late...I would worry he was never coming back, or that he didn't want to be with me. Was he dead? Should I text him? Was I acting desperate? I felt desperate, but I was also desperate to hide it. Everyday when he would leave, I would trick myself into thinking that when he came home, I would somehow feel better, only to discover that I didn't feel better. And that devastated me freshly each day.

All of this was happening during a time when well-meaning people--people I loved and respected-- would look at my precious, beautiful baby and declare, "Isn't this the best time?" or tell me, "You are such a good mom." These complements served to further disjoint the experience that I was having on the inside because on the outside, I was smiling, and doing all the right things. But on the inside, I was secretly wondering what was wrong with me, and why I couldn't just "snap out of it." Why wasn't I happy?

I cried alone. I blamed myself, and even my husband. I hated people who told me how they enjoyed having babies. I thought I was defective because I wanted more puppies, but not more children. I worried that it would never end, and I felt robbed because I thought I was supposed to be happy. I thought that being a mom was going to be joyful and that I would be better at it. I felt enraged when people said, "you seem fine," because I was not fine, I was just good at hiding how utterly demoralized I was.

Why am I telling you all this, Mama? Because I don't want you to suffer as long or as hard as I did. I want you to read these words and if you recognize yourself in them, I want you to see that it's not normal, and it's not okay, and most importantly: that you can reach out for help. You can stop breastfeeding, or put your child in daycare and go back to work, or phone a friend or family member and schedule your damn breakdown. You can see a therapist or go to inpatient care if you need to. You are ALLOWED to reach out if the darkness is too much and too thick for you see your way out of. This happens to some Mamas.

I also want you to know that this doesn't make you a bad mother. It doesn't mean that you don't love your child. I know you love your baby, and you don't have explain that to anyone. This only means that something clinical and real is happening to you, and there is tangible help. And I want you to know, I'm sorry. I'm sorry for every second that you've lost because of this. It sucks, and there are some people who will not understand what you are going through, but I understand. I understand how robbed you feel by PPD or PPA, but I don't want you to lose hope because you have a lifetime with your baby. That is why you have to reach out NOW and ask for the help you need.

You can do this, Mama. There is help and there is hope. You are important and you matter. You don't have to bear the unimaginable weight of PPD or PPA alone. This Mama's got you, and I'm here to say,  I love you and I want you to tell someone. TODAY. Do it for yourself so you can be the Mama you need to be. Read someone this blog post, if it helps to explain what's going on for you. Read this through the tears you deserve to cry, and let them see how hard it is. Allow your strength to be in the breakdown because sometimes the strongest choice we can make is to stop being strong and let ourselves fall apart.

I love you, Mama.

XOXO,

Billie
Bossy Italian Wife

"I AM NOT OKAY."

When I was a teenager, my family would take winter vacations to mountain resorts that included seasonal sports like skiing and snowboarding.  I was never particularly good at snowboarding, but it was trendy, and I went a few times. Where I lacked in ability, I made up with enthusiasm and blind confidence, which is what lead to me to strap onto that flexible board of plastic and hurl my body down the side of a mountain.

One such time, all strapped in and feeling not only secure, but optimistic, I adjusted my rented board from the parallel position to the vertical “downhill” stance and began down the trail. As I quickly started to pick up momentum, I felt cool for a millisecond until I suddenly realized that I had no clue what I was doing. Sure, I was going really fast and appeared to be navigating properly, but it was an illusion. As I wizzed past unsuspecting skiers and snowboarders,  I was lucky not to hit anyone. The speed was building to a point that I could no longer safely sustain. Then, a horrible reality dawned on me: I didn’t know how to stop.

Eventually, I would have to stop, and unfortunately for me, the only way to accomplish that on my own was to willfully fall. By that point the only choices were fall or crash. And because I like my face, and because I knew the conscious falling would do the least amount of damage to my face, I had to take a deep breath and tuck my body and hit the hard snow.

This is exactly what my self-professed "breakdown" was like.

The choice were clear: fall or crash, so I chose to fall. The thing about choosing to fall is that at least you are the one in the control, and this is a small comfort. You are the person doing the falling, and so you can choose the manner in which you would like to tumble. Though, I learned, one can’t predict what will happen once they do hit the ground. Sometimes you bust your lip on the hard snow, and other times, the damage is worse. For me, this was incredibly scary because having my breakdown meant choosing myself. It felt selfish in a way....It also meant I would have to come face-to-face with all of the emotions I had been unsuccessfully trying to outrun.

Now, when I say breakdown, I know that term can be off-putting to a great many people. They start thinking: white coats and straight jackets. Which is precisely why I needed to write this piece. Why in the fuck are we so afraid to admit we are not okay? We are suffering endlessly in silence. Who amongst us hasn't felt DONE? This was me: done. Emotionally and physically. I felt that I literally could go no further. I had been living with the same narrative in my head each morning… “How many hours do I have to pull before I can close my eyes and go back to sleep?” Somewhere in the midst of my days, I would wonder with genuine fascination, “Is this the day I will finally, once and for all, have a mental breakdown?” Each day, it felt as though a little more water was being poured into a quickly filling receptacle, and it was becoming too full and too large to ignore.

Complicating all of this was that I am a mother to a highly intuitive child who at the time was 3 years old. She could probably tell that something was deeply wrong with her mommy. Mommy could no longer pretend that everything was okay, and it was showing. This painted a fresh layer of guilt over the gloss of my mounting anxiety. Looking at my daughter, I knew I had to fix this before it got any worse and stole anything else from us.

So, in late 2017, with the walls quickly coming in on me, I phoned it in. I cleared my schedule, called in my helpers (who showed up with help and without judgement), and prepared to plant myself firmly on the couch and not get up until I was done crying, questioning, and eating snacks in badly coordinated outfits.

There were days when my face was swollen and sore from crying. I had days where all I could manage to do was make it from my bed to the couch. There were dinners that never got made. There were stretches where my daughter cracked out hard on iPad. There was a day when I wore an outfit so truly awful that there were no words. But I was also working it out. I was actively getting in the pit with my own despair and wrestling it to the death.

It took two weeks, more than one viewing of Little Women, and a lot of grace, but by the time I was done, I was good and broken down. During those two weeks, I systematically and painstakingly removed the layers of expectations that I had for myself, as well as the ones that others had for me. I gave myself permission to think, for the first time, about what self care meant, about how I wanted to actually show up in my own life, and what kind of family member and friend I wanted to be. I gave myself permission to cry and to not be okay. I was able to admit that trying to be everything, all at once, resulted in me not really being of any use to anyone at all.

By the time I could once again stand upright, I realized that the heavy release of emotion over those weeks was more like a prerequisite than the actual college credit. I had stopped moving long enough to see that without me, the world kept right on turning. All of the “things” I thought I needed to do, or participate in, really didn’t need to me function, and this was a distinct relief. Once I had enough room to breath outside of those things, I began to ask myself, “are these things really even all that important to me?”

I made a list of the things I had to do…like, HAD to do. I was shocked at how simple it was:

Show up to work, so we can pay bills.
Love myself.
Love my family.

Everything else was optional. Like, truly optional. This was my starting point— a new beginning. And like I said, the actual event of moving through the emotion was more like a prerequisite because coming out of all of that, I was surprised to find that I needed to rediscover what it meant to be "me." My breakdown lead me on a year long journey to unfold into a new, more realistic, and tailored version of my life. It also helped me reimagine what beauty really means in the context of a well-lived life.

In the day and age of social media, we are conditioned to participate in the crafting of our images. Naturally, this spills over into our everyday lives in subtle, and often harmful, ways. I believe that modernity predisposes us to become passengers on the runway train of “I’m fine—let’s stay busy and look successful.” I, like so many do, became obsessed with the notions of being perceived as strong and busy. This lead me down a well-intentioned path to hell. And that, my friends, is some bullshit.

Simultaneously, parenthood catapulted me into an arena I thought I was prepared for, but when I arrived, I had on the wrong type armor, and my weapons were those party balloons shaped like animals. Instead of throwing my hands up, and asking for help, or simply saying “what the actual fuck is going on here?” I tried to use the balloons and broken armor, while frantically running to outpace my enemies in the arena. The inevitable end was exhaustion and confusion. Perhaps as parents we are more susceptible to subscribing to illusionary expectations. I don't know.

What I do know is that nearly two years out from my famous couch-in, my life doesn't appear any different on the outside, but it is radically different on the inside. I changed the way I did business from the way I conduct friendships to family time, parenting, and even the way I work. I don't always feel happy, but I live with a ton more joy than I could have ever imagined. If you’ve been frantically trying to avoid the truth of yourself, or your life, by staying busy and outrunning the dragon, I implore you: schedule the damn breakdown, already. While it will feel like hell at first, a well-planned fall is better than an unplanned crash.

Bralettes & Minivans

The other night, I was watching television with my husband, and an attractive woman clearly over the age of 60 professed, “Well that’s what 20 year-olds think!” I practically jumped up from my seat on the couch in disagreement, “HEY!” I shouted at the flatscreen, “stop telling us what 20 year-olds think—you don’t know!” The moment the words came out of my mouth, they hit the air and instantly dissipated into a hypocritical cloud of dust that settled on me. Because what I meant when I said it was, “Stop speaking for us.” Us. Us 20 year olds.

I am turning 34 this year.

My 30s are are place of perpetual duality. I cannot drink, or eat, or stay up late, or even sleep in like I could in my 20s, and yet, I have somehow convinced myself that not only am I still young, but I sometimes believe that I am still in my 20s. Someone asked me, not that long ago, how old I was, and to my shock I confidently answered, “Twenty four.” And then I laughed awkwardly and said, “Sorry, I have no idea why I said that. I’m actually thirty three.” Ooops?

The year I turned 30, I would proudly announce to people, “I am thirty!” Because it was exciting and I loved to see the look of amazement on people’s faces when they said, “WOW! I thought you were in your 20s.” Those comments are less and less these days as the years are starting to appear in small ways on my face. I didn’t even get carded at the liquor store the other day, and I was all ready with my license! This is not a complaint, so much as it is a casual observation about my changing landscape. I am proud to be aging, and honestly, aging pretty well. Although, I am puzzled about how I can go to sleep perfectly fine and wake up with a sore back.

Here at 33, there are the beginnings of lines between my eyebrows, and there are small crows feet by my eyes, especially when I smile. The other day, as I tried to gently pinch away a fleck of stray mascara, the skin under my eye took an abnormal amount of time to bounce back from my pinch. My face, which was once nearly flawless, is now punctuated not only by acne, depending on where I am in my cycle, but also by an overall more rough appearance. My lips are not as pink or as plump as they used to be, and I swear, my nose keeps growing. I do not cover any of this with makeup because this is what I look like, and I am proud of that.

With all of these years behind me, one would think I have mastered my domain. But I have yet to crack the code of what type of skin I have. Is it oily or dry? Beats me, man. I try various products with no regularity and none of it helps. I do floss regularly, but I still have those weird dreams about my teeth falling out, so I am not sure if it’s working or not. And I’m now responsible for a whole child, which I think we aren’t fucking up too bad. Although, during a conversation about good touch/bad touch she did ask me, “What if someone tries to touch my asshole?” And as I told her that no one should ever be touching her “asshole.” I also kind of laughed because I think more than wanting to know if someone should or shouldn’t be touching it, she probably just wanted to say the word “asshole.”

Paradoxically, despite all this, I find a growing confidence coming to life. I proudly wear my high waisted jeans and my crop tops. I think I look better than ever, not because of the clothes, but because of the way I feel in them. I have finally settled on the hairstyle that makes me feel the me-iest. Since underwire is a torture device, and I will not subscribe, I wear Calvin Klein bralettes. Yes, my breasts look small, and you know why? Because they are small. And not the cute, perky small they once were. They are the breasts of a woman who breastfed for the better part of four years. I’m not going to put them in shaped cups to hide the truth of their bittiness. They are bitty, and to me, beautiful.

I dance to the latest Indie and Pop music, and I believe I am cool driving down the road in my ten-year-old minivan that we bought off Craig’s List. As I blast music, with my nearly five year old in the backseat bopping around, I think to myself, “Why didn’t I drive a minivan ten years ago? This is the coolest car I have ever had!” There is room for my tea, my water, my snacks, and my giant purse. If I was 20, I would have been able to fit all those things, plus my friends, into this van. My husband and I still act as though this is possible when we say, “This van was such a great purchase—there is so much room for our friends!” But we know that our friends will almost always opt to drive their own minivans because they might want to leave early.

Leaving early is almost always necessary when you have kids, aging pets, careers, and all of the other responsibilities you didn’t have in your 20s. Maybe all of these responsibilities have a way of shifting our thinking. It certainly has a way of making one try to conform, only to realize that conformity is hardly worth the cost. So I try to feel my youth because I am still young, but not as young as the younger young person. And that stings a bit as I shout at the woman just ahead of me on the life chain on the television and I see myself reflected back. I’m not sure if I enjoy the view, so I cock my head and contemplate all of these concepts from my face to my breasts, and my inability to sleep in, and my minivan.

And I, in the midst of thought and heavy silence, suddenly come to accept I am no longer in my 20s.

My heart will continue to believe she is timeless, which, of course, she is. That is the answer. There is, in each of us, a timeless portion of our heart that cannot be divorced from our youth. I love deeply the part of me that hears “those young people” and immediately fires back, “What do you know?!” It’s probable that even the commentator on television, well into the upper part of midlife, thinks that she knows what 20-year-olds are thinking just as I have purported.

But deep down she probably also knows, like me, that there is this other part of us that is rooted in humanity and the inescapable timeline of years. We gather experiences like a snowball rolling downhill until we have become so heavy we stop and are planted. As we sit there-- a chunky hard bit of snow--the sun comes out, the season changes, and then we begin to melt until we are once again small, and then nothing at all.

{ {Mommy} }

“Mommy, it’s morning.” She says with her voice just above a whisper. The sun has just peeked above the tree line, but she’s been awake for over an hour, patiently absorbing herself in play and awaiting that sliver of sunlight to appear so she could come in and announce that it’s morning. Who needs a rooster when I’ve got my own 5 year old songbird?

“Mommy.” She says it just to say it. She sighs. “Mommy...” it sounds like a breath. I’m trying to will myself out of bed. “Mommy!”

“What?”

“I want to make a fishtank for my Moshi animal.”

“Mommy! I want to dance to my favorite songs on YouTube!”

“Mommy! Look at the art I made—I’m working hard to be an artist!” She announces all of this in the small space of time it takes me to go from the bed to the hallway and click on the coffee maker. I tell her that’s nice, that sure we can listen to YouTube, and, yes, your artwork is wonderful.

Time for coffee.

“Mommy! Haaaaalp me!” She bellows as I pour my cup of beige coffee—lots of creamer—wondering why I am so tired, why I didn’t drink more water last night, and if the cramping in my side is menstrual. Please let it be menstrual, I silently pray.

I go over and help her make a fish tank, which entails pouring water into designated plastic containers with lids. She’s pulling out all the Tupperware. She needs several aquariums. They need to be see-through. They need to be stacked. “Mommy, look! Mommy, I can pour it myself, I’m big now...Look Mommy! My aquarium is a city!”

And Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, makes it's own rhythm all throughout the day, sometimes all throughout the night. I can’t always tell if it’s that she wants me, or that she wants to simply know I am there, as a sort of quiet observer, taking in her childhood. A safety net. A home. A Mommy.

I sit, sunken in to my well-worn place in our old leather sofa, between two carefully arranged pillows, ignoring whatever background noise is going on, pondering the fact that most of the day, I don’t feel like a “Mommy.” I'm cozy there, sipping my coffee, still feeling 25 years old and sort of scared. Will this always be my default? Slightly buzzy in a sort of a peaceful scared? The passage of time is both mysterious and untouchable, and I wonder about how in the wide world this stuffed shark came to be in living room. What ARE shopkins? And how exactly did I come to know so much about LOL Dolls?

Sometimes, in the still moments, when my daughter asks me, “Mommy, do I have to go to school today?” I want to scream, “No! None of this matters! We should be learning to grow our own food, and raising livestock! Let’s drop out!” But Mommy can’t do that, can she?

Mommy is steady on the outside, yet confused on the inside. Mommy is thinking... should we be going to church or something? Is god everywhere? Can we stop lying about Santa yet? Why do people give me weird looks when I tell them my daughter is obsessed with talking about death? Why can’t kids do anything unsupervised anymore? These questions are constantly clicking behind my eyes, furrowing that space between my brows and making a well-worn path as if to say, "this is the map to your inner thoughts."

I have done so many strange and outlandish things in my life. I’ve sold scrapple sandwiches at music festivals. I quit my job to become a writer. I’ve paid way too much for boiled wool blankets that I rarely use because they are way too nice. But of the all the weird things I’ve done, being Mommy is the weirdest. At my best, Mommy and Billie meld into a single person as they move through their day together. At my worst, Mommy is on her own, and Billie only looks out through the eyes of Mommy, trying her best to come to grips with the presentation of the day.

As I push my daughter on the swing outside, I make fart noises and say, “Ew gross, you fart too much!” And she laughs like I am the funniest, most brilliant human that ever, ever lived. Which, to her, I am. Later in the week, she yells at me in the grocery and people I don’t know give me looks I do know that clearly say, “you are both failing.” But I don’t care because they don’t know: I’m Mommy, and I make all the best fart jokes. And also killer quesadillas. Fuck them, I think, as I push my cart, like a steadfast ship with a screaming passenger, through the aisles. This is "don't judge me" Mommy. And she is a total badass.

Oddly, I find is there are as many incarnations of “Mommy” as there are utterances of the word. As my daughter sing-songs "Mommy" as a request, a reply, and a comfort throughout her day, this Mommy person bobs and weaves to meet demands and fill roles.  The Mommy that crawls out of bed looking for coffee is different from fart joke Mommy, and grocery store Mommy, and school pick up Mommy. End-of-the-day Mommy is a woman apart, having lived all the moments of the day, she’s tired, satisfied, and has a two story limit. She has Mommied all day with reverence, joy, bewilderment, and likely some anger.

“Mommy,” she says after the second story, “can you cuddle me?” And as I wrap my arms around her she says, “I’m a baby and you’re a baby, and I’m a mommy and you’re a mommy.” And oh my god, how true and strange it is, laying there, tangled up in her little bed, that we are exactly the same, at once, babies and Mommies only made separate by the invisible passage of time. 

The Healing Power of Congee {With Recipe}

Last June I started attending acupuncture for my severe digestion issues. They were so pervasive that they were bleeding into my mental health, and if that sounds dramatic, I swear, it doesn't do the situation justice. Now, I could write an entire series on how much I LOVE acupuncture and all the amazing things it has done for me personally, but today I want to talk about the first, best, easiest thing you can do for your body, digestion problems or not.

And that is to make and eat congee every. Damn. Day. 

Now, I don't want to front or anything. I am no expert on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), or even on congee itself, but I have been a years-long sufferer of ill digestion, and I'm nearly a year in on my acupuncture and TCM diet regimen, so I have picked up a thing or two along the way. I've also read The Book of Jook, which is an amazing foundational book on TCM's eating philosophy, which I highly recommend if this interests you beyond your breakfast plate.

Let's start with the basics. What the heck is congee and why should you be eating it? 
Congee is a slow-cooked, broken rice porridge, not unlike a cream of wheat or cream of rice hot cereal you might get at an American grocery store. It's essentially one part rice to 8 parts water, and during the cooking process the water swells the rice so exquisitely that it bursts, turning into a creamy, slightly sweet, porridge. When cold, it congeals, but when heated, it becomes nice and creamy.

It is a staple food in China, and one eaten by the peasants, who incidentally, live longer than their wealthier counterparts who do not eat congee. It is also a foundational food in the TCM philosophy of eating because of its constitution (rice and water), its versatility in being paired with ingredients (and healing herbs), and its ability to slowly awaken digestion in a soothing manner, and therefore be a good breakfast food that promotes the positive movement of Qi--the energy life source, the gooooood stuff.


The idea, distilled, is this: raw food is hard to digest. We have to work really hard to break down food that isn't already what the principles would dub "the 100 degree soup." So, if you're throwing an apple in your gob first thing in the morning, well, you're working overtime. And in TCM, that is no way to gently awake the system.

Another way to think of this is to consider the stomach like a fire. Hot foods help stoke the fire, while cold foods are like throwing a damp towel on your digestive fires.

Congee is a terrific candidate for the job of digestive wake up because it's full of water (hydrating), rice is easy to digest, it's warm (no extra work on the stomach's part), and you can add lots of healing herbs and spices to make it even more beneficial. It stokes the fire. Also, if I've had any upset from the night before, this generally quells the beast, and gets me back where I need to be, digestively speaking.

Let's talk versatility
Congee is a great "base" food. Which is probably why it's so favored in TCM. As you can probably imagine, there are as many maladies as there are people in the world. While congee benefits everyone and anyone, if you are trying to heal, your protocol is likely to be more individualized. Luckily, congee pairs well with everything from sweet to savory. I enjoy mine with a variety of fruits, like blueberries, dried cherries, pineapple, or mango and I like adding a bit of raw honey and ginger and cinnamon.

But there have also been times when I have found I skipped breakfast. One reason I do this is if I am not hungry. My acupuncturist encouraged me to stop eating when I wasn't hungry (even if it's mealtime.) It's too taxing on the digestion, who is not signaling a need for food. There are times when I skip breakfast and instead enjoy congee for lunch with savory items, such as Irish beef stew, or my favorite, Beef Bourginon. It is SO delicious ramped up with some salt and lots of gravy!

Will it keep me full? 
The goal of congee is not so much to keep you full as it is to get your system started in the morning. It's a complex carbohydrate, so it breaks down a bit more slowly than others, so it is a great breakfast food for this reason. I'll also tell you a secret: for a person who has had digestive issues (and anxiety issues), feeling hungry is the best feeling EVER because it means 1) I'm not anxious, and 2) everything is working properly!

So the short answer is that unless you pair your congee with a protein, you'll probably be hungry again in about 2 hours. For me, this works because I have my congee about 10am, and then I eat lunch about 12:30PM or so. According to my friend, in school for Acupuncture, the optimal time to jumpstart your system is between 7AM to 9AM...but we aren't the breakfast police, so you do you.

So, is this easy? 
Is congee easy to make? The answer is YES, but for ease, it does require a crockpot. If you don't have a crockpot, you could use the stovetop, but it would require some babysitting, and I honestly have't tried it. However, it you do use a crockpot, it is so simple and easy that you can cook it while you are at work during the day, or while you are sleeping at night, as it has an 8 hour cook time on low. One pot is enough to last me a little over a week, and even share some with my mom. So make it on a Sunday and have breakfast all week long!

Ready for the recipe? Here she blows....

Simple Congee Recipe 

Time: 8 (inactive) hours | Makes: 1 large pot | Difficulty: SO EASY! 

You Will Need:

1 cup of white rice (I use organic white or jasmine, both are great!) 
8 cups water 

Special equipment- Crockpot 

Method

Add rice and water to crockpot. Turn on low and cook for 8 hours. If you are able, give it a stir a couple of times throughout the cooking process. If not, no worries. 

Cool and store in the refrigerator, and reheat for breakfast or whatever meal you fancy! 

Serve with your choice of sweet or savory toppings (see above suggestions). 

When Lying is a Good Idea

Last year, I was happy to discover that they were planting corn in the fields outside our house. It's so nice to have the privacy, I thought to myself. Until I remembered a story my friend Katie told me about how her two cousins got lost in a corn field for hours when they were children. "They were screaming and my Aunt couldn't find them. Literally," she said, "it was traumatizing." 

My daughter is, for the record, obsessed with corn. She tells me corn is favorite vegetable, and that corn stalks are her friends. So instead of panicking, I did what any decent parent would do. I lied. Yes, I did. At first, I had some misgivings about this, but after running it by a trusted friend, who assured me that it was the right thing to do, I felt it was totally fine. Her reasoning was that in tribal cultures there were myths that they would tell the children to help keep them safe, and this was no different. And we dubbed it "the safety lie." 

There was only one thing my daughter had been afraid of up to that point and it was called "The Lump." Don't ask me why, I guess the word just freaks her out, so I decided to leverage this to my advantage and, ultimately, hers. We told her that "The Lump" likes to live in the corn fields--that's where he makes his home--so it's important for us to stay out of the corn fields because, naturally, we don't want The Lump to get us. That was it. That was all I needed to say. She never touched a toe in those big, leafy corn fields, and when they plowed them down, she asked what was going to happen to The Lump. I told her he would go move to another field. No harm, no foul. 

Eventually she will get older and she will realize there are not Lumps that live in the fields, and this will be part of her maturation process. But in the meantime, it kept her safe, not lost in a corn field, and bought me some peace of mind. Sometimes you have to tell a little lie to keep kids on track. 

And you know what? I think we need to lie to kids a little more often. 

This became clear to me, particularly when it comes to Active Shooter Drills in daycares and elementary schools, as my daughter's new fears now extend beyond Lumps. After an intruder drill at daycare several months ago, my kid now ends phone conversations by saying, "hey, if any strangers try to come in your house, let me know!" and asks her grandma during sleepovers, "What will you do if a guy with a gun is waiting outside the house?" And as it turns out, she is far from alone. 

There are more and more reports coming out that children are being traumatized by these drills--that they are scared of going to school--or, like my child, think that a "bad guy with a gun may come in at any time." Personally, I don't think that these are things that five year olds should be scared about. Lumps, to my way of thinking, should be about as scary as it gets. 

Of course, I cannot fault the daycare for doing the drill. They are being prepared, and as a mom, I can appreciate that. Ditto for schools. But what I cannot get on board with is telling kids what they are all about because it's too much unnecessarily scary information. And the drills themselves are, in fact, scary for children. For god's sake, we need to stop telling little kids whose wild imaginations cannot process the thought of "active shooters" that we are doing a mass murder preparation drills. Call it a "hurricane" drill. Call it a "safety drill." Call it an "all out ostrich, put your head in the sand" drill. I don't care. I'm asking that we collectively get together and tell a little white lie to protect the innocence of childhood. 

Adults used to be comfortable lying to their kids about all kinds of things. Shit, my parents told me that a chicken lived behind our refrigerator because it made a strange clucking sound. And also, my mom told me that she was elf--a real elf--who traveled on Santa's sleigh to his workshop. I mean, how many of us are about to tell our kids that A HUGE BUNNY is coming to deliver presents?! And I get it, these things are "fun" and silly and traditional, but maybe that's more to the point. We will lie to our kids in the name of a good time, but not to protect their developing minds which deserve a safe haven. Nah, bro. I ain't down with it. 

Yes, they will look back and realize what it really was, and that we told them a lie. YES, we can give them more information the older the get, but NO we don't have to be explicit about what that means when kids are four, five, six or even seven. I think a lie--a safety lie--is in order. I even think that looking back, our kids will thank us for not giving them information they really weren't ready for. The worrying needs to be left to the adults because the adults are the ones who are equipped to fix it. 

And honestly, sometimes, for all our rigid morality, the truth is simply overrated. 

Easy Kale Salad Recipe

 I love an easy recipe. Extra points if it's healthy. This is one of those box checking recipes that is not only easy, but healthy, inadvertently vegetarian and gluten-free as well as having the possibility of being vegan. I KNOW, right?!

Every time I have made this, I have converted non-kale eaters to kale eaters. And when I made this the other day, and posted it to my Instagram Stories, I knew I needed to do a blog post because I made yet *another* discovery about this totally easy, totally amazing recipe. You wanna know what it is? Brace yourselves....

THIS KALE SALAD TASTES PHENOMENAL WHEN HEATED! 

Additionally, this is one of those recipes that you can add into your weekly meal prep rotation and enjoy all week, IF, (and this is a big IF) you can keep yourself from eating it within a day, which, in my house, we can't. Also, any of the ingredients in this salad are merely suggestions. If you prefer rice in place of quinoa, go for it. If you've got green onions on hand, throw them in! Fan of dried cranberries or cherries, by all means, DO IT! This is a recipe you can continually switch up with new ingredients, or just use to clear out the veggies in your fridge at the end of the week!

All of that, and you can shovel this delicious salad into your gob with zero guilt. What's not to love? Now, I like to buy the pre-washed big ol' bag of kale in the store, but I don't want to tell you how to live, so you can buy whatever kale you love best. My mother-in-law recently purchased purple kale and said it was miles above regular ole green kale. And, when it comes to the dressing, I kept it simple with olive oil and vinegar, but if I had lemons I would have squeezed them in too. Heck, an orange would also give it a zing. This is a salad you can take citrus risks with. So don't hold back--just taste as you go!


Lastly, I want to take a moment to build the tension and wax on the beauty of the colors in this exquisitely beautiful salad. Ever heard the phrase "eat the rainbow" when it comes to veggies? It can be easier said than done, but I feel so good when I can cram a bunch of colors into a dish. I mean, just beautiful amiright? Of course I am. I'm always right. I'm the rightest McRighterson that ever lived. That's why you came here--for my rightness and my recipes. Or at least my recipes, right? Right I am. 



Easy Kale Salad
Time: 30 minutes | Serves 6-8 | Difficulty: Easy 

You Will Need:

A really big bowl, preferably with a lid 

1/2 bag of pre-washed kale 
1/2 cup quinoa, cooked according to directions, and cooled slightly 
1 purple onion*, diced
1 bell pepper, diced 
3 carrots, peeled and shredded (I use my food processor because it's so easy!) 
Handful of nuts, your choice, I like pecans, pine nuts, walnuts or slivered almonds. 
6 cloves garlic, minced (you can use less if you prefer) 
2 heaping handfuls of parmesan cheese
Apple cider vinegar
Olive oil
salt and pepper 

Other (optional) additions:
Cucumbers
Tomatoes
Feta Cheese or goat cheese 
Roasted beets 
orange or lemon juice 
Fresh broccoli (uncooked) chopped finely 

Method:

 You're going to spend most of the time on this recipe chopping, dicing and slicing and then basically throwing everything in. It's your call whether you like to add as you go, or to prep everything ahead of time and add all at once. The only consideration you'll want to make is for the quinoa, which you will want to have cooled slightly. 

Start by filling your gigantic bowl about 3/4 full with your kale. Remove any large stems from your kale, and if you wish, tear it into smaller pieces with your hands. Add all of your veggies to your bowl and then mince the garlic into the bowl. Add your parmesan (if using) and then begin adding the vinegar and oil. 

What I like to do for the dressing is go a few times around the bowl, pouring as I go, first with the oil and then with the vinegar. This would be a fine time to add your citrus juice, if using, too. Then give the whole big bowl and big toss, taste and add salt and pepper. Repeat the process with the oil and vinegar until you've reached a balance that is good for you. This is the point where I like to call my husband in and say "hey can you taste this--does it need anything?" And then we taste and add and taste and add and basically we are just eating and it's delicious. 

If your bowl has a lid, it's also great to put the lid on and give the whole thing a good shaking!! Store in the fridge. Serve as a side to practically anything OR throw it in a bowl and pop it in the microwave for about a minute or two and enjoy hot! Mmmmmm. So good. 


*I will not say "red onion" because the onions are not, in fact, red they are PURPLE. I even did a not-even-close-to scientific Instagram poll which confirmed by visual hypothesis that these onions are not RED as originally named. So hitherto and therefore, such onions will only be referred to as purple herein. And whatnot. 

Stuff I Love: Spelt Flour

Last summer when my acupuncturist told me I needed to give up traditional wheat, I agreed with a reluctant heart. I knew that it was worth the try because I had literally tried everything else, but for god's sake, I'm Italian-American. NO PASTA? NO BREAD? It felt so...wrong. I was unhappy to admit, though, that cutting wheat out of my diet had a big impact on not only my gut health, but my mental health.

I would repeat to myself, as I prepared pasta for my husband and daughter, or watched them gobbling down a delicious wheat-based confection, "Nothing tastes as good as mental health feels." And it's true. Still, I'm a solution oriented kind of gal, and I am quite crafty in the kitchen, so I knew I could nail this problem of needing a substitute close to wheat that gave that same mouth-feel. Hehe. Mouth-feel.

That was when I came across two little words in a book about eating for your blood type... Spelt flour. It peaked my interest so I bought a bag on Amazon to see how it made me feel, and also how it was to cook with. Turns out, this stuff is pretty gosh-darn amazing, and I've been using it ever since. I order about 4 pounds at a time and it lasts about a month. In fact, it's nearly replaced flour in all my recipes, and my even my husband (ever the skeptic) likes it, too.

So what's so great about spelt anyway? 
Spelt is an ancient grain, so it predates modern wheat, though it's like a cousin to wheat in some round-about way that I will butcher trying to give an explanation on. Spelt has a super hard outer hull, which makes it naturally more insect resistant. This means it doesn't require the pesticides that are traditionally used on wheat, so it's free of pesticides, which I love. It also has less chromosomes than it's modern wheat counterpart, and a lower gluten content, so it's easier on the digestive system.

In addition, it's chocked full of good stuff like vitamin B2, manganese, niacin, copper, phosphorus, protein, and fiber. It tastes a lot like whole wheat, with a slightly nutty flavor.

Application
So, I will admit that spelt flour isn't 100% like regular flour. For one, the color is darker, and the taste is a little bit different, like a whole wheat. Maybe I would classify it as a "tang" that only nature can provide? But after going months without flour, for me, this made little impact. Like, when you haven't had a steak sandwich, or any sandwich, in months and then you have a freshly baked whole wheat flavored bun for the first time, you're just eating, eyes closed, and everything fades away.

The thing is, it absorbs water differently than wheat, but you CAN pretty much use it cup for cup if you're willing to experiment here and there with adding a little extra, and testing the waters. For example, I've used it in chocolate chip cookies, and the cookies will spread farther, and turn out a bit more crispy, but they are delicious. But in my fig cookies and chocolate crinkle cookies this Christmas, this flour performed beautifully (both those doughs, though, had to be chilled in the fridge for 24 hours.)

At this point, I use spelt for everything from pie crust to bread to tomato pie dough, and even slippery dumplings. The more I have worked with it, the more I know how to use it, so it's like any relationship in cooking: it gets better as you are more versed in using it. Pinterest is amazing because it has a wealth of recipes for using spelt, and below I am linking some of my favorites!

Spelt Flour Hamburger rolls
--> I use this recipe to make rolls, French style bread, and even focaccia bread (which I then turned into Philly style tomato pie!) This is a real winner.

Spelt Flour Tortillas 
I also don't eat corn, but these are super awesome and do the trick. I make a bunch and then freeze them so I can just pull out a couple when I need them.

Spelt Pie Crust (vegan option)
So you can make this with butter (which I do), but the recipe is for a vegan pie crust. This recipe also works for a double crust (top and bottom), which I used to make a chicken pot pie. YUM!

Spelt Flour Flatbread- 
This is my own recipe for a regular flat bread which you can replace spelt flour in cup for cup. It doesn't rise *quite* as high as traditional flour, but some people prefer it (some people being me). In my home, we eat this every Friday night, and it's one of my daughter's favorite meals! I half the recipe and make spelt flour flatbread for myself, and traditional wheat flatbread for my two lovelies who prefer that style because I am cool like that. 

Take-Out Fake-Out: Cold "Peanut" Noodles

Let me tell you about me and my group of friends: we are a chef's nightmare. Half of us are gluten free, some of us are dairy free. One is vegetarian, another is vegan. And I don't eat peanuts (among other things).  Most people would be intimidated by this set of challenges, but we manage to get together around food, like, a lot. We have become agile in cooking for different dietary needs. Seriously, you should come to one of our houses for dinner.

Under this shining review I just rendered, you would think that this <<AMAZING>> recipe would satisfy all of our gluten-free, dairy free, peanut free needs...alas, there is one person in our group who cannot eat this because he is allergic to almonds. You can't win them all.

All of this is to say that if you, like Charley, are allergic to almonds, you can swap out the almond butter for peanut butter, unless someone else in your group doesn't eat peanuts (like me) and then maybe you can try cashew butter (which I haven't). In addition, you could also use traditional wheat pasta instead of gluten free pasta. Your choice. Mah point: this is a versatile recipe that can feed a diverse crowd of 30 and 40-somethings with a whole range of dietary sensitivities and needs. And kids love it too. How's that for a tasty introduction?

This really is one of my very favorite recipes. It pairs well with a salad, or a meat, or a soup. You can make it ahead. You can enjoy it hot, or you can enjoy it cold. I know it says "cold" in the title, but trust me, it's good either way.

I do want to take a moment to talk about why I use a more traditional noodle instead of say, an Asian-style rice noodle. Because, after all, this is an Asian-ish dish. (I say "Asian-ish" because honestly, I don't know the roots of this dish. While it appears on many a Chinese take out menu, my understanding of Chinese-American food is that it's a largely American incarnation.) So maybe we are just heathens and enjoy these exclusively in America... if it's wrong, I don't want to be right.

The problem with flat rice noodles, or even vermicelli style rice noodles is that they tend to fall apart as you stir them with a sauce, and this really get under my skin. I have found that spaghetti and spaghetti-style rice noodles (my favorite brand is Tinkyada, by the way) stay intact and absorb the sauce really well. The ONLY problem with rice noodles is that they don't tend to stay as fresh in the refrigerator over time so you wanna eat these within a day or two, or heat them.

For serving, you can top these noodles with sesame seeds if you have them, diced green onions if thats your jam, and if you stray toward the spicy, Sriracha. YUM!

Okay. With all the formalities out of the way, let's dive into this recipe, shall we?!

Cold "Peanut" Noodles

Time: 25 minutes (active) 2+ hours (passive) | Serves 4 | Difficulty: EASY! 

You Will Need:

12 ounces noodles (spaghetti, gluten free or regular, your choice)
3/4 cup almond butter 
4 cloves minced garlic 
1/4 cup rice vinegar (I have also used apple cider, which is terrific too!) 
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil 
1/2 cup soy sauce 
1/8 cup olive oil 
1/4 cup pasta water 

Special equipment- blender or immersion blender (I prefer to use my immersion blender, but this totally a personal thing.) 

Method: 

Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil. 

While you are waiting for the water to boil, you can blend your ingredients to make the sauce. Place the almond butter, garlic, vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, and olive oil in a glass jar or in the blender. Blend until nice and smooth: 


You can taste the sauce and adjust a little if you like more acid (vinegar) or more salt (soy). But be warned, once you taste the sauce, you are literally going to want to eat all the sauce because it's outta this world! 

By now your water should be boiling. Go ahead and cook your pasta according to the directions on the package. When it's finished, I like to pull the pasta from the pot with a pair of tongs rather than draining it. 1) It makes it easier to get the 1/4 cup pasta water you'll want to add, and 2) it leaves a little extra moisture on the noodles. These noodles are going to absorb a hell of a lot of this sauce and the sauce will become nice and thick, so don't worry. Mama got you. 


Put your cooked noodles, your prepared sauce, and your 1/4 cup pasta water into a bowl and give it a good stir. I like to use tongs, but that's just me. You do you. The sauce may seem runny. It may seem like maybe you did something wrong. You didn't. Trust the process. 

Generally, I will let my noodles sit on the counter a little while until they aren't so piping hot. Maybe I eat some noodles out of the bowl while it's hot and yell, "YUM" into the void of my empty house (because everyone is at work and school and it's awesome.) When you're ready to stop plucking those hot, delicious noodles from the countertop bowl, put your noodles in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours, giving it a stir in the middle somewhere to help it cool evenly. When it's time to eat, top with sesame seeds or green onions, and serve with a salad or a nice piece of meat! 


Enjoy in the company of people you love!