Lessons of a Dining Room

If you’ve been around me at all in the past two months, then you’ve probably heard me talk about my new dining set.

A few friends graciously gave us their old dining table and chairs. Previously, we only had two patio chairs that were too low for the table and made us more inclined to eat on the couch (read more of that post here).

They unloaded the set on a sunny Thursday in late August. The wooden table and chair frames were burnt orange, and the cushions – with hardly any cushion at all – were wrapped in floral fabric, circa 1976. They needed a little love, and it was going to be my project.

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Now I love the idea of DIY. But sometimes I’d rather buy stuff than get grumpy over shoddy end products that make me want to pout.

In this case, though, I was determined to revamp this set and finally give ourselves a dining room. Too many times, I had wanted to cook for people but always talked myself out of it over lack of seating and a table to gather around. So we picked up two cans of paint, and I waited until JoAnn’s had a nice sale to get the fabric I’d been eyeing. I did a little Googling, a little sanding, painting, cutting and stapling.

I made progress because I was desperate to finish something and be proud of it.

I was tired of screwing up another loaf of bread, I still hadn’t put together a wedding album from last year, and the stalks of my basil plant were becoming twig-like, a sure sign of horticulture failure. This dining set was my hope of homemaking redemption.

But I like to think the upgrade wasn’t entirely in vain.

It felt so slow. I’d work on a couple cushions one night. Sand, then paint a coat, wait. Paint another coat, wait.

I saw the potential, the movement, but I yearned for the satisfaction of completion. And that’s not dissimilar from how I approach the learning process in other scenarios, too. Whether I want to be more diligent in prayer or be a better cook or curate an inviting home, I thirst for results, for the finished product.

I want to be inspired every time I speak to God. I want those pancakes to be as tall as Joy the Baker’s. I just want to find an area rug that doesn’t cost me a month’s rent and have a steady supply of fall-scented candles and patterned dish towels.

What I forget is that – like those chairs – progress and what we perceive as improvements are not always immediate, tactile, buy-them-at-TJ Maxx things.

They could be. For example, I could make a day trip and load up a cart with throw pillows, placemats, glass vases and bowls. New, little sentiment. My home might be pretty, but it may feel forced by perfection’s pressure. And my heart just might take on that same shape, as well.

My parents’ home intrigues me because it features new paintings next to old clocks. A modern red couch, lit by the same lamp that was there when I was ten. It is warm, decorated for the seasons and a complete evolution from their 35+ years of marriage.

I believe making a home or uncovering what we’re good at, what we’re crazy for – is all about developing our character.

It’s about a life of curation, not instant gratification. A collection of lessons and learnings in process, not necessarily end products.

Because a dining room is not about the furniture; it’s about giving people a place. Time in prayer is not about getting all the answers; it’s about being re-connected to the source of who we are. Baking awesome bread is not about having luck once; it’s about knowing the dough from kneading it again and again.

I have to think that magic happens when we give ourselves permission to be imperfect, in progress. 

And I’m not very good at this, but you know, I’m working on it.

So go ahead. Curate your home, make your art, bake your cake, and enjoy the results. But don’t neglect to see value in the slow. To notice the points along the way that ground you, teach you, and bring you joy.

Why I Cook: A Manifesto

A funny thing happens when you move out.

All of a sudden, Mom’s not there to make a full meal every night consisting of a protein, starch and green veggie. Someone has to do it. And by that I really mean get dinner on the table, green veggie or not.

The kitchen is one room in the house I really take ownership of. The guest bedroom is extremely unorganized, my bedside table is a wreck, but my kitchen actually makes sense.

I’m thankful that cooking and baking are not burdensome. I enjoy both, as long as I have time to do so and don’t feel rushed. Lately it’s become even more clear to me why I cook and why I bake. So here it is, my kitchen manifesto. Or something like that.

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I cook because I love to eat. Bacon, potatoes, brussels sprouts, rice, cheese, pasta, chicken and wine. Good white wine. Rolls, kale, pizza, brownies, muffins. You get it. And if I don’t have the budget to get these things at restaurants (I don’t) then we need an alternative. Cooking is the alternative.

I cook for the pride of making something really delicious. When I look at my pretty plate of food, or have onions sautéing on one burner, sauce simmering on another and who knows what in the oven, there is something magical about it all coming together. And when it happens to come together at the same time, it’s pure glory.

I cook because it keeps me humble. I’ve made beer bread that was terrible, and some ultra healthy zucchini bread that was even more so. Rolls have turned out tasting too much like yeast and muffins come out too bland. Chicken underdone. Noodles too soggy.  It teaches me that I have so much to learn.

I cook for Thomas. Because he can do better than frozen pizza and buttered noodles, dang it.

I cook as a creative outlet. Monday through Friday, much of my time is spent on the laptop. Evenings and weekends roll around, and I tend to unplug. Kneading dough for pizza tonight felt so great because I could touch it, mold it how I wanted. Finding external ways to express creativity is healthy.

I cook for tradition and to carry on the recipes that both my mom and mother-in-law hold so dear to them. From breakfast casserole to cinnamon rolls to brown sugar thighs, these recipes are worth sharing. Plus, it gives us something to talk about when we’re together.

I cook to share love. And joy. And goodness. Because a tasty bite can instantly provoke feelings of peace and satisfaction. One good dish may not save the world, but it can change how we view the world and our own problems, even if it’s for a mere moment.

Your hobby, or maybe just whatever you do day-to-day, matters. It really matters. What you cook, play, study, teach or sell, these things are important things, and to identify why we do them can be reassuring.

Sometimes we do them for the wrong reasons…because we feel like we have to or the world would fall apart if we didn’t.  And other times we do them because we just plain like it.

Whatever you do, I hope it brings you some kind of goodness.

Book Review: Packing Light

Recently I wrote about how I love reading stories about people who take risks and do really neat things with their lives. Friends, let me introduce you to Ally Vesterfelt.

As a twenty-something with a master’s degree living in Portland, Ally enjoyed her routine, but still felt restless.  When she hesitantly decided to take a 50-state road trip with a friend, she realized just how much baggage she carried in life – everything from materialism to expectations of herself and her relationships.

She blogged about the trip, and the blog turned into a book. That book is Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage.

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I also mentioned in that post a few weeks ago that I sometimes get stuck reading stories like this one. How I devour the book, admire the author and go back to the life I live now – the one of school, work and responsibility. But something is different about this one.

First off, Ally is an incredibly honest writer. She details all her emotions on the trip – resentment towards God and jealously towards her closest friends – and admits some big relationship mistakes, which makes it feel like you’re talking with a friend, not some distant author.

Her thoughts are beautifully paired with anecdotes from South Dakota, Georgia, Arizona and beyond. She has great insight, but it’s actually applicable to life because she experienced a new adventure firsthand.

Ultimately, Ally encourages readers to let go of some things – those bad expectations and hurts and shoes you never wear. But she also urges you to hold on to what does matter and the reality that wherever you go, you’re never alone. God knows your needs and has you covered. And because of this,  life is better when you’re in the mess of it. Not on the perimeter. And that’s a cause I can get behind.

I’m helping Ally promote her book this month. This is her first published book, and I am happily spreading the word. To support Ally and purchase a wonderful read for you or a friend, click here

What are you reading lately?