Travel Journal: Wheaton, Illinois

In this brief lull before I head back over the Atlantic, this time to Europe, being in the U.S. feels less like being home and more like a rest stop sandwiched between two very different journeys. There’s no irony, therefore, in titling this post with the town in which I live. Wheaton is, for this week, a mere respite before the process of checking and re-checking my passport, combing over itineraries, and the bottoming-out feeling of the airplane lifting off the ground begins again.

It recalls a time in my life, more distant than I think of it as, in which an airport, any airport (don’t all of them fundamentally feel the same?) was in some ways more familiar than any place I’d been, and any place I was going.

Even now, whenever I’m in an airport, I’m—not home, exactly, but we recognize each other, the airport and I. Every airport recalls dozens of memories. Pick up book, read. Pick up phone, scroll in a daze. Pick up ticket, review boarding time. Stare at fellow passengers, sketch out histories for them, people with whom you will soon be sent hurtling into the sky usually for at least several hours, yet people you will not know any better when you return to earth, disheveled, yawning, shouldering bags in resigned impatience.

All of this is in my recent past, and also in my near future. But for now: Wheaton, Illinois. What’s here? What to include in this brief travel journal?

There’s the food, of course. Always the food first. Steamboat BBQ just down the street, so close that when the windows are open a breeze carries through tantalizing scents of smoke and salt. At least three ice cream shops, frequently changing ownership, are within a few blocks of each other downtown. River City Roasters, also downtown, serves excellent coffee in a now-ubiquitous rustic industrial setting, right next to County Farm Bagels, which boasts a dizzying display of bagel and cream cheese options.

A small pond lies just outside our apartment. We have a view of it from our windows. Herons flap over the water to roost in trees half-hidden by another building. They settle among the branches, heads tucked under white feathers. Full-throated frogs bellow in melancholy along the lip of the pond.

No hills. That’s one thing about Wheaton. I love to climb, in a sort of recreational, strictly non-serious way, and Wheaton is flat, flat, flat. I don’t mind this fact as much just now, while Wheaton is only a rest stop. Europe will have hills.

And when I’m back, will I mind still? Well, I’ll save that question for later. Perhaps I can find a mole-hill, and make it a mountain to climb.

Travel Journal: Makassar, on the Island of Sulawesi, in Indonesia

Standing on the edge of an island half an hour from shore, digging my feet into the sand and wondering: is this home?

This island is, as far as we know, uninhabited, but the shell of a house promises future inhabitants. Cats inexplicably stalk the sand and meow for the food we forgot to bring. Six or seven years ago when we were first taken to the island, we named it narcissistically Brake Paradise Island, but its real name in Indonesian is Kodengareng Keke.

About an hour before, when I expressed my doubts as to the sanity of going with our particular boat-driver on this particular dock, my mom inquired if I had gone soft. Well, yes, I have. I’ve been in the United States for five years, where no credible dock would have rickety boards or small boys fishing on top of rocks and tires and sitting among mounds of trash. No man would accost you without preliminaries and haggle a price. I’ve gone incredibly soft, wishing as I did for neat white offices, online set prices and tickets purchased in advance, a blue-suited man who would outline the itinerary, and perhaps a gift shop? Incredibly, embarrassingly soft.

Still, a sense of adventure made me more excited than worried, and there’s freedom in setting your own itinerary. We’re not in America. Why should things be done in the American way? Soft but not hopeless, perhaps.

The beauty of the island and the journey there was breathtaking, the speedboat bucking and slapping against the water. We watched as flying fish skimmed over the surface of the ocean, blue and buoyant, fins flashing like translucent wings. The trash that clogs the water lessened as we went farther out.

When we reached the island, Joe and I made friends with an orange cat and named him Horatio. He followed me around for a little while before being disappointed that, although I loved petting and scratching him, really I was here to snorkel. Schools of transparent fish darted about in the water. A few of us ventured to the drop-off, where electric blue fish swam between rocks and ahead was only murky darkness. I swam a bit further out, feeling nothing but fascination at the shimmering movement I thought might have been the current.

Dad warned us that we shouldn’t touch the spiked black sea urchins, then got stung himself while trying to get a shell. We had a brief conference, airing questions of poison and lamenting that we can’t get a phone signal to google What do I do if I’ve been stung by a sea urchin? Our boat-driver assured us he would probably be fine.

We visited another island, one frequented by tourists, and found a huge clam, the biggest any of us had ever seen. No pearl, though. Even now, when I know how silly it is, I always look for a pearl. We handed the clam to a group of tourists so they could take pictures. The water here wasn’t quite as clear, but we still saw long, pencil-thin fish and what might have been an eel or a sea-snake.

After that, back to shore.

Are You Making This One Huge Mistake That Keeps You from Writing Consistently?

I have a running to-do list. I imagine you probably do too. If your to-do list is anything like mine, it’s both finite and inexhaustible at the same time. To-do lists are like hydras. Cross off one item, and several more appear. The truth is, I’ve never gotten to the end of my to-do list.

And you know what’s on my to-do list? Yep. Writing. You know what often doesn’t get done on my to-do list? Yep. Writing.


Because I myself am making one huge, costly mistake. Writing is on my to-do list—in fact, it’s at the top. But it, like “Organize kitchen cabinets” or “Clean under the fridge” or “Learn French,” is in the It would be nice to do this if I have time category.

You know what that translates to? The It will never get done category. Just look in my kitchen cabinets. Or under my fridge. Or me demander si je parle française.

(Actually, don’t do any of those things.)

If you’re serious about writing, it needs to be made a priority. It needs to be THE priority, the one that you don’t go to bed without doing, like brushing your teeth. You need to write every day. Even if just for fifteen minutes.

I can already hear your objections, in part because they are my objections. It’s so difficult to know what to write. I’m not even sure I have the talent. Writing so often won’t produce anything good. I have to wait till inspiration strikes or the muse taps me on the shoulder.

I don’t believe in a muse, and I certainly don’t believe in waiting for one, however whimsical the idea sounds. I believe in putting your rear in a chair (to corrupt a more well-known writer proverb) and writing whatever comes. And doing that day after day after day after day.

Make a plan and stick to it. I wrote my first book, a gentle and frivolous parody, in twenty-one days because I had a deadline. Was it crazy? Yes. Do I recommend it? Absolutely not. What I took away from that experience was not a caffeine addiction or permanent eye-twitching (thankfully), but instead that the only thing I really needed to do to write was to decide to write—and then follow through.

One objection remains. I’m not even sure I have the talent. Well, nobody’s sure. Nobody may ever read your writing but your mom and your grandmother. Nobody may ever read my writing but my mom and grandmother. But do you love it? If the answer is yes, nothing else matters.

I also take heart from author Michael Cunningham, who writes:

What I do is this: I get up every morning and go straight to work, and on the good days I write with pleasure. On the bad days, I just sit there, waiting to see if something will come. On the bad days, if I’m lucky, I’ll come up with a lame sentence or two, thinking, I’ll delete this later. It’s terrible, but it’s all I’ve got today. I’ve found, though, that when I look back six months later at what I’ve written, I can’t distinguish the parts I wrote on the good days from the parts I wrote on the bad. I’ve come to believe that the inspiration is always there, like an electrical current, and what varies is our access to it. And I’ve found that the best way to cope with that is with diligence, with a kind of daily determination.

There’s no magic potion. There’s no elusive muse. Only you and the paper and the pen.

So get up in the morning, or stay awake a little longer each night. Put your rear in a chair. And write.

The Sugar Fast Day 32: What’s Next

Well, it’s over. Yesterday was the last day of the sugar fast. I haven’t written about it in so long—almost two weeks, in fact—because I haven’t had anything new to say, really. I’ve just kept at it. Boring, but true.

Can I be a little sad that it’s over?

I had a clementine this morning and was overwhelmed by its sweetness. It tasted like I was eating candy. The blueberries I ate this afternoon also tasted extremely sweet, but not quite as overpowering.

From the beginning, I’ve been concerned with developing good habits, and I think….drumroll…we have. We’ve incorporated way more vegetables into our diet, have been so astounded by the deliciousness of homemade bread that I’m not sure we’ll ever buy it from the store again, and have successfully broken our incessant cravings for sugar.

Will we still have sugar? Yes. It doesn’t need to disappear from our lives forever, and moderation in all things is certainly now the sugar rule.

But it doesn’t define our—it doesn’t define my—experience of happiness or well-being anymore.

I’ve been happy without it, and I will be happy with it again—as an occasional treat.

And if it ever becomes a dominant force in my life once more, out it goes for a little while. We’re even thinking of making January an annual no-sugar fast month. Who knows?

This month has been crazy, stressful, wonderful, bewildering, and revealing. Thanks for sticking it out with me.

And now… back to our regularly scheduled program. 😉

The Sugar Fast Day 19: Middle of the Week Mutterings

I’ve never really liked Wednesdays. Does anybody? They’re right in the middle of the week, exactly the same distance from the end as from the beginning. Boring—and also, in a mild way, depressing.

A Wednesday is a great day to make cookies and put off all other responsibilities. It’s also the kind of day that my husband and I might look at each other and say, “Meatheads?” It’s our favorite local burger-fries-and-shakes place. Everything is amazing there.

Except I can’t do any of those things.

Last night as I was flipping through some dessert cookbooks, I recognized once again that I often make not eating sweets harder on myself. I spend a lot of time hunting for the next best dessert recipe, in part because I love baking, but mostly because I, you know, love sugar.

I’ll have to be careful either about keeping my “flipping” to a minimum or about learning to be content with a beautiful picture 99% of the time. It’s a dangerous pastime on a Wednesday—a day that is, I think, summed up well in Snoopy’s ever-useful “blah—and when the barrier of this fast is gone, I don’t want to fall prey to the temptation of instant gratification.

Yes, after more than two weeks, it’s still difficult. I don’t want sugar quite as much, but that not quite as much is still an awful lot.

Strangely enough, my biggest fear coming out of this isn’t that I’ll still love sugar. I’ve been able to resist it, and I’ll continue to resist it. I have confidence about that. No, my biggest fear is that I won’t like it anymore.

Maybe that seems odd to you. What better way to rid yourself of an “evil” than not to have the desire for it at all? As much as that’s true, I’m not sure that would be helpful in terms of other areas of my life in which I need growth. I don’t think I want to banish my desire for it—or my desire for anything that is not intrinsically wicked—so much as control and reign in that desire, making sure that it doesn’t master me.

The finite is not worth enough, not worth nearly enough, to have overmastering importance over anybody.

And what’s more finite than a single sugar crystal?

The Sugar Fast Day 14: Breaking the Rules

Guess what? I broke the rules yesterday. (I know, I know, you never saw it coming.)

It turns out, my last post set this one up really well when I wrote that the point of this fast isn’t to follow an arbitrary rule, but to kick bad habits and—if possible—learn to develop a healthy relationship with sugar. Or at least to see it in its proper light.

I’m hearing shouts of, “Luucy, ’splain” in my head right now. (I am not ashamed to admit that, in some ways, Lucy Ricardo and I are very similar.) Well, calm down. I’ll ’splain.

A few months ago, I signed up for a six-week women’s program hosted by several ladies from our church. I got a call later that I was on the waitlist, and a few weeks later another call saying I would have to try again next year. Then, the Monday before last, I got yet another call that a spot had unexpectedly opened up, and was I interested?

I debated about it. We had already decided to do the sugar fast, and this program—which was intended to give young wives cooking demonstrations, delicious food from said demonstrations, and encouragement from a short devotional and prayer-time—would surely include sugar. The call came two days after we started the fast, so it felt like a personal attack.

But my husband suggested it would be a good opportunity to get more connected in our church and receive mentorship and wisdom from older women. Acting on his advice, I decided to say yes—and learned right away that the first night, not actually part of the six weeks but just an introduction, would be “Dessert Night.” I’d already written so much about temptations that I didn’t include a mention of it in the post I wrote around that time, but believe you me, I was thinking about it.

This post isn’t about that night, though. I went and had a cup of decaf coffee, and—perhaps because of the absence of some of my favorite sweets—I didn’t find the sight of a table full of desserts so bad. In fact, it was fine. The most anxious moment I had was eyeing a plump blueberry.

The first official week, however, presented fresh challenges that I hadn’t thought of. In the days leading up to Thursday, our meeting day, I wondered, What will I do if there’s sugar in the dinner itself? Will I even know?

Brandon had already told me that, in order to enjoy the experience of the program, I should be able to have dessert at my own discretion. Initially, I responded with a resounding “No!” It was our rule, and I wanted to keep it. But after those questions kept coming up again—and even as I watched our hostess pour a honey glaze over salmon during one of the demonstrations—I found myself re-evaluating. What, after all, is the purpose of this fast? Not deprivation for deprivation’s sake, surely.

It became increasingly clear that I wouldn’t be able to avoid having sugar without at the very least inconveniencing all the women who had taken time to prepare our food. What was more, they brought us our plates—already filled with the salmon, a kale salad topped with mandarin oranges and dried cranberries, and a sweet potato. If I was to stick, puppet-like, to the rules, I could only eat the sweet potato.

As I stared at the food on my plate, I made a decision. I wasn’t going to spoil my evening or distress those at my table or the women who had prepared the food by leaving everything but the sweet potato. I would eat in good conscience, because, once again, the rule wasn’t the point.

(I feel that, psychologically, this is a big deal for me. If I had a psychoanalyst, I would probably tell him so at our next meeting.)

I decided, too, that if I wanted dessert after our devotional and prayer-time, it would be okay to have some as well. We watched the desserts being prepared—an apple crisp and two kinds of cobbler—and they looked very yummy. Later in the evening, their aroma wafted out to us from the kitchen. It was heavenly.

After our prayer-time ended, I went through the kitchen to where several women were congregating around the dessert. There they were, laid out prettily in all their glory, that tantalizing aroma even more pungent in close proximity. Would I? Or wouldn’t I? I looked at the dessert. I looked away. I wanted it, but I didn’t need it. The urge to devour it as soon as possible wasn’t there. It was a pleasure I could indulge. It was a pleasure I could forgo.

I said no.

But here’s the thing: it would have been okay if I had said yes. Sugar is fast-fading as a dominant force and motivator in my life. It’s gaining its proper place. It’s not the culmination of my dreams for happiness. And a little now and then won’t hurt. It was okay that I wanted it. It was okay that I said no. And, I repeat, it would have been okay if I had said yes.

Because the taste of the mandarin oranges and the dried cranberries and the honey glaze and whatever sugar was in the dressing for the kale salad to make it palatable didn’t make me go crazy at dinner. Because my taste buds didn’t faint with delight at such a concentration of fructose again. Because I tasted it, thought, Mmm, this is good, and shrugged. Because I delighted in the meal, but it didn’t overwhelm me with longing.

I don’t know what I’ll do next Thursday, but I’m not wracked with guilt about it, as I usually am when I feel I’ve transgressed a rule. I’m learning that freedom with sugar doesn’t mean insanely eating everything whenever I feel like it. It’s freedom to desire it, and freedom to curb that desire—the freedom to say yes and the freedom to say no. I’m beginning to understand both.

Not a bad conclusion to come to on the last day of Week 2, methinks.


The Sugar Fast Day 8: The Limit(s)

Although the time for clarification has probably passed, I realized the other day that I never actually defined clearly the ground rules for this month. So here they are.

  1. No food with added sugar (specifically, fructose).
  2. No fruits.

Pretty simple, but in some ways I don’t think they’re getting any easier. I was never in doubt that I could do this. I love rules. I love to follow rules. So following these two rules (by the letter) is fairly straightforward in that I’m not too concerned with whether or not I’ll fail in the strictest sense of failure.

But the deeper issue isn’t about following rules. As I said on Day 3, this month should be primarily about developing good habits, and whether or not I can make the most of this time by going a different way that doesn’t include instant sugar-gratification. It’s about following through on a long-term plan, something that we’ve managed here and there but needed a major kick-start to make permanent. If it’s only about not eating sugar, I’m just going to be angry and bitter this entire time about depriving myself of my absolute favorite foods.

And who wants to be angry and bitter? I admit that it’s been difficult not to be, at least, vaguely depressed about things. To use a wonderfully British turn of phrase, in some ways this challenge really has been the limit.

There have been, however, a few non-sugar highlights that are worth mentioning for their hopefulness. I would have been the last person to tell you this, my friends, but here I am confessing that healthy food can indeed taste good. Case in point: I came across this cauliflower recipe a few days ago, and we happened to have a whole cauliflower sitting in our fridge. So I did something I didn’t think I would ever do—as per the directions, I roasted it and served it with Garlic Tahini Sauce for dinner with nothing else. And it was delicious.

As I reflect upon this past week—already a week—I notice how much more conscious my eating decisions have been, and how unconscious they used to be. A piece of fudge here, a leftover cookie there, and all eaten quickly, most not even savored. We savored that cauliflower. The crispy outer edges, the undertones of sweetness, how well it paired with the sauce. It was glorious. And it didn’t have sugar.

Surely that’s a step in the right direction, even as I take two steps back by looking at recipes for currently forbidden foods. The road of progress is certainly far from smooth. Still, I don’t feel quite as desperate. Week 2, watch out.