January reads

If you have read this blog for any length of time you probably know that I LOVE books. This year, I’d like to recommend some of my favorites every month. I will share books related to expat life or books on living with simplicity, beauty and joy. On occasion I may throw in a fun read or something we’ve enjoyed as a family.

Since I’m organizing for our next move, (and in keeping with having more white space) I want to share some finds with you.


SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life: A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck by Julie Morgenstern.

This book is great when you feel stuck. Many things that may have served you well in a previous phase of your life, no longer work. (I’m looking at you Finance books on the bottom shelve!) Even if these things were once valuable, they are no longer relevant or useful. By opening up space and time, you free yourself to become unstuck. The concepts apply to your physical environment, time and habits. I found the section on cutting down your calendar and to-do lists to be particularly challenging and also insightful. She shares some really graceful ways to escape commitments that no longer work and to say no to filling up your calendar with activities that don’t fit you life.


I’m sure you’ve heard about the phenomenon that is Marie Kondo and “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” My initial take on this book was laugher, laughter and more laughter. It was quite clear that Ms. Kondo did not have children or live with a husband who has collections of fraternity t-shirts, pens, books, favorite rocks… Not that we have any of that. Ahem.  If you read the book on the premise that you can only control yourself and your own stuff, it is an inspirational read.

She scoffs at most conventional wisdom –  she insists “tidy a little every day and you’ll be tidying forever.” She advocates “a once in a lifetime event of putting your house in order”, and then simply putting things back where they belong in daily life. While I never seem to have a block of time big enough to do a whole house (see comments on kids etc above) I have found myself walking through the house mumbling “don’t put it down, put it away.” This “once” philosophy doesn’t really deal with toys or outgrown clothes very well either, so I think an annual or semi annual “event of putting your house in order” is probably more our speed. In a way, expat life makes it easier: we are forced to declutter and tidy every three years when we move (oh weight-limits, how I love and hate you.)

Her advice to tidy by category instead of location is inspired. For example, I keep some pens, markers, office and art supplies in my bedside table for journaling, in the backpack I take with me when I go to work elsewhere, in the dining room where I have my “office” and in the kitchen where I have our household files. I can’t really admit to the number of scissors I owned. I’m trying to stick with a portable version now and just take it from room to room.

Spark Joy by Marie Kondo

Her signature question is “does this spark joy?” If the answer is yes, you get to keep it; if no, you discard. This works beautifully for clothing and books. However, spatulas don’t exactly “spark joy” but if I’m to feed the family breakfast, the spatulas have to stay. (Wait, maybe I need new spatulas?)

In her follow-up book she addresses the problem by discussing a screw driver: it may not spark joy, but it does a job well. (Of course, she continues to thank the screwdriver and praise it for a job well done. Okay.) Spark Joy contains some great illustration of her folding methods (a little vague to follow in the first book.) I would say get this one from the library.

If you have read the Kondo books, you may enjoy this article

Happy Reading!

Book review: At Home with Madame Chic

at-home-with-madame-chic-9781476770338_lgIn my coaching training class last week (I’m working with the bliss-filled Kathy Stowell from Bliss Beyond Naptime) we talked about values, and how viewing even the mundane tasks in your days through the lens of your values can change your attitude. My example was dusting – it is a Sisyphean task, but absolutely necessary. When viewed through the lens of living my life beautifully, (one of my core values for many years) it goes from the mundane to a rite I perform for this sacred space where we live our days.

ASIDE: If you are moving to Peru, take note. Lima is a dusty place. You can either, a) resign yourself to dusting constantly, or b) hire a housekeeper.

Yesterday, the much-anticipated At Home with Madame Chic arrived on my kindle.

Jennifer Scott writes about the ways to live a chic life, making the mundane and every day beautiful. My first impression is that there is not that much new here. After all, Flylady Marley Cilley has been telling her followers that ”nothing says I love you like clean underwear” for years.

Chic, the goal here, is for anyone who makes the effort. In the first part of the book, Home, she explains that a home that runs smoothly will contribute to “that air of effortlessness”, an essential component of chic. I find this true. It hard to concentrate in chaos, and when I’m short with my boys, it is often the result of messes underfoot. Worrying about what to make for dinner certainly doesn’t contribute to a chic home or a relaxed family meal. Her recommendations in this section is again nothing new – declutter, plan menus, set the table for breakfast at night, keep your home company ready. The difference is the attitude – housekeeping is not drudgery to be gotten through as fast as possible, but part of creating and living a chic life. Curate your house as an art exhibit, she recommends.

The second section of the book, Daily Routines, is divided into morning, afternoon and evening. Each section contains beauty for the senses – a list of suitable candle scents and music albums.  Each section also talks about opportunities for entertaining – elevenses, brunch, afternoon tea, and dinner parties. There are a few nice recipes – from green smoothies to a blueberry cake.

The morning section touches on Jennifer Scott’s famous Ten Item Wardrobe. To implement this, I still think you are better off reading her first book, Lessons from Madame Chic (or watch her on TEDx), but she does talk about the attitude to dressing and how it contributes to the chic life. She adds a few make-up and hairstyle ideas here too.

This is ultimately a book about a living a chic life, and while it was a quick, enjoyable and inspiring read, there wasn’t much that was new to me. Then I got to the last section, and she relates how she drives past her childhood home, only to find it sadly neglected. At this point, she has this epiphany: “I knew in that moment that we had taken the soul of that house with us to our new home”

And this is where she won my heart.

I have taken the soul of home with me

When you are a foreign service family making a beautiful and “homey” home takes on a new urgency. You have to declutter because you are always bumping up against those weight limits. You have furniture that likely would not have been your first choice. Sometimes you have a lovely home. Sometimes you just have to make it work. You are still expected to host graciously.   More importantly, you have to create a safe, comfortable, and familiar home environment for your family.

For us, homes come and go, furnishings come and go (thank goodness!), and all we get to take with us is the beauty we created, the memories we made, and the soul of our home, which always comes along.  Jennifer Scott got that, and shared beautiful ways to make it happen.

Teaching history


My husband has a degree in history, and a doctorate in political science. To say that he’s a history buff is probably an understatement. When I once, early in our relationship, told him that I was not a huge fan of history in school, he said that it was because history was taught wrong. It was reduced to memorizing dates and battles, with no discussion of the human stories that make it happen.  So it was with interest that I read The New History Wars on the New York Times, an article about the revision of the curriculum framework for the advanced placement test in American history.

After that conversation long time ago, I started reading biographies, and I was hooked. Since I didn’t grow up in the United States, I thought American history would be an appropriate starting point. I read biographies of Washington, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. I read Franklin’s autobiography – as much a study in time and life management as an account of a historical period.  When I finished David McCullough’s 1776, I immediately went looking to see if he wrote “1777” because it read like a riveting novel, and I wanted more.  I read personal letters from the wars.  I read biographies, memoirs, essays.

When I started started traveling for work, I would prepare for a trip by reading Lonely Planet,  and then whatever my local library had on the country’s history.  I read about India, Indonesia, Turkey, and Egypt.  It began making sense.  What happened to people in one place didn’t happen in temporal or geographic isolation.   If you want to understand the Palestinian conflict, start with a good read, like Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree.  Then read something on the same topic from a completely different perspective.

As I started reading different books on the same topic, I started thinking about the observer effect in physics.  Maybe history too, has an observer effect.  After all, the historian is the product of his time, her education, his belief system, her heritage.    What she sees and observes is not independent of who she is and when she writes.  Then here is the depth of field. Is it a wide angel, seeing the 6 million Jews who died, lists of camps, dates of liberation? Is it focussed on the young life of Ann Frank, showing us the impact of history on the very real girl? Is it the recollections of Primo Levi, bearing witness to the events he lived through? While all these views might be historically accurate, the stories they tell are not the same.

Facts are facts, right?  Maybe the reason that we teach kids dates and battles is because accepting ambiguity and gray areas is a more mature skill.  It seems to me that there are lots and lots of gray areas in history.  It seems to me that American history is not a static thing.  The very nature of the melting pot, or salad bowl or whatever menu item you wish to call the composition of our country, dictates that history has to be inclusive.  Our history is the history of the Roman empire, the British colonies, independence.  But it is also the history of India, and China, and the Maya and the Inca, and the Spanish empire.

So what is a vital mommy to do when she teaches her children history?  What’s vital of course.  Help them to memorize the dates and battles, then get the atlas and show them where it happened.  Take them on a field trip, even if its only to the local library.  Read.  Read.  Read.  George Santayana is credited with the quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”   To that I say that those who do not understand the interpretation of their history, and bound to misunderstand it.

By the way, if you need some examples from Peru, I suggest that you start with The Last Days of the Incas, and then read William Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Peru.  For more fun, start with Turn Right at Machu Picchu, a fun adventure yarn with just enough history to make you curious for more.

Other people said it well

I haven’t had much of a chance to write lately.  The entire family has come down with an awful awful cold, resulting in some breathing problems for my little guy.  So much for “outgrowing” it once we leave Egypt!  It has not been much fun.

I’m doing lots of reading and research for whatever the next phase of our life may be.  Everything is up in the air.  Where will we live? Egypt?  Somewhere else?  What will I do? Back to work?  What type of work?  Of course there is the usual “making do with what you brought in your bags”, and not handing my husband’s entire salary to Target.  This, folks, is that glamorous expat life.  Yup.  I’m still looking for the glamor too.  That being said, I wouldn’t change the decision to join the foreign service at all.  We had a good run in Egypt, and I miss many things about it dearly.

Since I’m reading lots of good things, I thought I might as well share:

Bullet Journal: A new-to-me planning/journaling method.  The website is well designed and the video is a quick watch.  I’m implementing this in my trusty notebook as we speak.  The many lists have to live somewhere other than a post-it note.  (My planner is still in Cairo.  Along with the family calendar on the fridge.)

Monster Momday:  A call for sanity in the mommy wars.  We are deep in it again here in Nova.  Someone actually asked how I felt about giving my son asthma medication.  Just fine, thanks.  Of course I’d prefer that he didn’t need it, but when all’s said and done, I prefer the medication to him turning blue.

Be a World Citizen: This one is for all the friends who site their kids as the reason they no longer travel.  Of course you don’t have to, but why not?  3 Thinsg for Mom is a wonderful site, and discover lovely people and ideas there all the time.

You have some more time?  Go check out a Ted talk.  Why am I only discovering these now?  What are you reading?

A Little Help from my Friends

_DSC6574I’ve been re-reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, one of my all time favorite books.  Since I have more free time now than I have ever had as an adult, it got me thinking about what it is that makes me happy and what I enjoy doing.  I’m definitely at my happiest when I’m reading, studying and learning new things.  Books have always been my favorite things, and my best helpers.

To keep myself happy and busy I have settled on a course of study.  I always thought I would have been a professional student given the opportunity.  So, with the phrase “why not” firmly in my head, I have started my own university right here at home.  I am taking five classes.  My criteria was that it had to be something I would enjoy, and that the resources to do it had to be (mostly) free.  Shopping on my own bookshelves was very fruitful indeed.

I have assigned myself reading – two chapters from each book per month.  There is also supplemental reading, homework, and practical assignments.

1. Home Organization.  I’m a bit of an organizing junky,  love making something out of nothing, and order out of chaos.  My textbook for this class is One Year to an Organized Life by Regina Leeds.  I am also a huge fan of Project Organize Your Entire Life.  And of course, my nemesis, Pinterest.

2. Personal Finance.  I may not enjoy this, but I will enjoy the end result.  While I know more about this than any of the other topics of have chosen, I have not implemented it as well as I could, especially for our changing lives.  In the past three years, we had two children, moved internationally, and went from two incomes to one.  My textbook is Suze Orman’s The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom.  I will supplement this with a few favorite frugal living websites – The Frugal Girl comes to mind.

3. PE. My textbook is I Need to Get In Shape Now What.  The title of the book says it all. Running is really not such a great exercise option around here, so my PE class includes swimming lessons.  Thankfully, the swim instructor is VERY nice, and has the patience of a saint.  This is probably the only time I cannot use the excuse that I have no time.

4. Mindful Family Life.  It is sometimes hard to be the intentional mom and wife I want to be.   I love doing activities with the boys, but don’t always know where to start.  I’m always inspired by Amanda Soule at Soulemama, so I’m using her book The Rhythm of Family as inspiration, and adding Every Day’s a Holiday by Heidi Kenney and The Toddler Busy Book by Trish Kuffner to come up with new activities.  And again, there is always Pinterest.  In this case, I have decided to plan one indoor and one outdoor family activity a week.  It doesn’t have to be a new activity every week.

5. Photography.  I have a lovely camera, and two gorgeous kids.  There is no excuse.  None.  I’m using Nikon D3100 From Snapshots to Great Shots by Jeff Revell as my textbook.  It has assignments.  Goody.  I will also put up a new website with weekly pictures of my kids.  A kind of “52 weeks” assignment.  Details to follow.

What do you do to learn new things?

Random January Reads

While I deal with my huge backlog of wordpress drafts, I’ll leave you with a few things I’ve enjoyed reading this week.

The always inspiring Apartment Therapy is doing a January Cure.  I especially like the idea of the outbox.  Check it out here:  http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/the-january-cure-182076

A friend sent me this funny from the Guardian.  Mind the language, but awfully funny.  http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/jan/29/digested-read-french-children-dont-throw

From The Power of Moms – while my kids may be little for this, I’m not.  Instead of feeling guilty about everything we have and all the poverty and hopelessness around us, I’m trying to find ways to help.  Difficult, but necessary, in the face of such overwhelming need.  http://powerofmoms.com/2012/12/keeping-that-christmas-feeling/

And then I’m reading “Mitten Strings for God” by Katrina Kenison.  Where has this book been my entire parenting life?  I must be the last person to discover this book, but I’m making up for it by savoring each page, and highlighting every second sentence.  Mom friends, I highly recommend this book.