Emma’s Buttermilk Rye (Swedish Limpa)

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heirloom grain

we share the last slice

of buttermilk rye

The above haiku was written by my dad’s cousin Lesley, an accomplished and award-winning poet, and was inspired by my great-grandmother’s buttermilk rye bread.  My great-grandmother, Emma, grew up on the southern tip of Sweden within sight of the sea.  Her father owned the local flour and saw mill and also tended to fruit orchards on their land.  The microclimate where they lived was relatively mild and hospitable to growing fruits such as apples, plums, tart cherries, currants and berries.  As a child Emma travelled all over Sweden by train with her father selling the fruit they had grown.

In her early teens, Emma fell in love with a local boy, Sven, who was not as well off as she.  He was determined to go to America and make a better life for himself and eventually Emma.  Sven left Sweden and sailed to America, settling in Illinois.  He changed his name to Swan and found work on a farm, learning to speak English in the process.  He eventually returned to Sweden to get Emma and bring her back to America with him.  The two were married in 1911.

The couple decided to settle in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area as it was home to many Scandinavian immigrants and had a climate and landscape that felt familiar to them. Because of his English speaking experience, Swan was able to find a good job in Minneapolis.  He worked as a chauffeur for a wealthy man who was a director for General Mills.  Emma was quite social and became known for her afternoon fika gatherings, charming the local women with her baked goods and hospitality.

This buttermilk rye bread is one of her recipes that has found its way into my baking rotation.  A tender crumb thanks to the buttermilk and a hint of orange and anise make this an exceptionally warm and comforting bread, perfect for wintertime.  It definitely has a festive, Christmasy quality to it, but it could certainly be made throughout the fall and winter months…and beyond!  The combination of rye, orange and anise is as addictive as it is unusual.  I often find myself craving a slice, slightly warm from the oven, spread with a generous layer of salted butter.  And a cup of coffee, of course.  Despite its citrus and spice notes, Swedish Limpa can serve as a base for your smørrebrød, as long as the sandwich ingredients you use compliment the warmth of the bread.  I have also heard it suggested that you use Swedish Limpa crumbs in your Swedish meatballs, but I have yet to try it.

I am so grateful for recipes like this, handed down through the generations with stories attached to them.  Making this simple bread is a very tangible way to connect with my great-grandmother, revisit her stories and honor her legacy.  What can you make in your kitchen that will connect you with your ancestors?  What recipes do you need to write down in the hopes that they will be carried forward to future generations?  Food can be such an extraordinarily powerful link between past, present and future.

Emma’s Buttermilk Rye Bread (Swedish Limpa)

Makes one loaf

1 Cup buttermilk

1/4 Teaspoon baking soda

1 Tablespoon butter

2 Tablespoons water

2 Tablespoons molasses

The zest of 1 orange

1 Teaspoon anise seed, toasted briefly in a dry skillet and then ground, or 1 teaspoon ground anise seed

1 Teaspoon fine salt

2 Teaspoons instant yeast

1 Cup dark rye flour (I use Bob’s Red Mill brand)

2 Cups bread flour

  1. Combine buttermilk and baking soda in a liquid measuring cup.
  2. Combine butter, water, molasses and orange zest in a small saucepan and heat to a simmer.  Remove from heat and cool slightly.
  3. Add buttermilk mixture and molasses mixture to the mixing bowl of a stand mixer.
  4. Add ground anise seed, salt, yeast and rye flour to the bowl.
  5. Using the paddle attachment, mix on low until ingredients are combined.  Add bread flour and continue to mix on low until the dough is fully combined and clearing the side of the bowl.
  6. Switching to the dough hook attachment, knead dough on low for approximately 4 minutes.  If you are mixing and kneading the dough by hand, the kneading process will take longer.
  7. Remove the bowl from the mixer, cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise at room temperature for approximately 2 hours.
  8. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Remove the dough from the bowl and shape it as desired on a piece of parchment paper.  I like the oval shape, pictured above, or you can make it into a circle or even place it in a greased standard-sized loaf pan.  Cover lightly with plastic wrap and allow to rise for another 45 minutes to an hour.
  9. Remove plastic wrap and decoratively score dough with a razor blade or a sharp knife.  Place on a baking sheet (or directly on a baking stone if you have one) and bake for 30-35 minutes.  The internal temperature of the dough should be at least 198 degrees when it is done baking.
  10. Allow the bread to cool before slicing.

Roasted Butternut Squash Smørrebrød with Spicy Harissa Mayo and Pepitas

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Remember that very traditional new potato smørrebrød I shared with you recently?  This is a somewhat unconventional take on that concept.  The same dense rye bread, butter and greens for a base, but this time topped with buttery roasted squash half-moons, spicy harissa mayonnaise, cilantro and pepitas.  A complete break from tradition, but delicious in its own right.

Roasted Butternut Squash Smørrebrød with Spicy Harissa Mayo and Pepitas

Makes 4 small sandwiches (which serves about two people)

 4 thin slices dense rye bread, a little over 1/4 inch thick

Butter, preferably salted

A handful or two of baby arugula leaves

Roasted Butternut Squash Half-Moonsrecipe below

Spicy Harissa Mayonnaise, recipe below

a handful of cilantro leaves (removed from their stems but left whole)

1/4 cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds), toasted in a dry skillet

Butter each slice of bread.  Place a layer of baby arugula leaves on top.  Arrange squash slices artfully over the arugula.  Spoon Spicy Harissa Mayo over the squash.  Scatter cilantro leaves and roasted pepitas on top.  Serve.

Roasted Butternut Squash Half-Moons

Adapted from The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook from America’s Test Kitchen

Depending on the size of your squash, makes enough for approximately 4 sandwiches.  Plan on about 6 slices of squash per sandwich.

1 Medium-sized butternut squash

2 tablespoons butter

Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Cut the neck portion of the squash from the rounded bottom (ideally just above where the seeds start).  Peel the neck portion of the squash using a y-shaped vegetable peeler.  You can surely peel and use the bottom of the squash as well, cutting it in half and removing the seeds from the cavity with a spoon before proceeding with the recipe.  I save the unpeeled bottom of the squash for my backyard chickens.  They think it is about the best treat ever.
  3. Carefully cut the peeled squash in half lengthwise, and then into 1/4 inch thick half-moon shapes.
  4. Melt butter in a large bowl.  Place squash slices in the bowl with the butter and toss until coated.
  5. Lay squash slices in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.  Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Roast in the oven for 25-30 minutes or until the squash slices are soft and slightly caramelized on the bottom.  Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature.

Squash can be prepared up to three days in advance and stored in the refrigerator.  The squash is best if it is not cold from the fridge.  Take it out 30 minutes or so before assembling sandwiches to warm slightly before using.

Spicy Harissa Mayonnaise

Makes approximately 1/4 cup

1/4 cup prepared mayonnaise

1 tablespoon prepared harissa (I use the one from Trader Joe’s)

Combine mayonnaise and harissa in a small bowl.  Add more harissa to taste.  Can be prepared up to two days in advance.

Roasted Pear Compote with Cardamom, Vanilla and Fresh Ginger

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Roasted Pear Compote with Cardamom, Vanilla and Fresh Ginger on crispbread spread with cream cheese.  An excellent fika treat!

It’s time we had a little chat about cardamom.  Citrusy, spicy, floral….it is, shall we say, a very complex and exotic spice.  Although native to India, cardamom has somehow managed to find its way into many traditional recipes for Scandinavian baked goods.  The Nordic countries are famous for their cardamom buns, cakes and cookies.  How did this far-flung spice find its way from India to Scandinavia?  Some claim that the Vikings brought it north with them after encountering it on their travels to the Byzantine Empire (now Turkey) or possibly Constantinople (now Istanbul).  Others say it was first brought to mainland Europe when the Moors established a presence on the Iberian peninsula, and it made its way to Scandinavia from there.  Whatever the circumstances, cardamom is the darling spice of the Nordic baking world.

It is not, however, beloved by all.  I once bought my daughter a large cardamom-laced sugar cookie from a Scandinavian bakery.  She eagerly took a big bite, unaware of the cardamom lurking inside, and spit it out, disgusted.  “Mom, why does my cookie taste like soap!?”  Oh, how my Swedish, Norwegian and Danish ancestors must have rolled in their graves upon hearing this!  Clearly I had not done as good of a job raising her as I thought I had.  Not enough exposure to cardamom and now the taste was unpleasant, foreign and apparently soapy to her.  We joke that it might make a good title for her memoir someday:  Why Does My Cookie Taste Like Soap?  Discovering my Nordic Heritage the Hard Way (coming to a book store near you in 20 years or so).  As I said, not beloved by all.

To be honest, I didn’t like cardamom as a kid either.  I now enjoy it in small doses ( a little goes a LONG way), and I feel like some of the recipes I encounter are a bit heavy handed with this potent spice.  If you are new to cardamom or are trying to convince your children of its deliciousness, I would suggest a light touch at first…a quarter or half teaspoon of it here or there.  I also recommend buying the pods and grinding the seeds inside yourself rather than purchasing ground cardamom.  You will be rewarded with a much truer flavor.

This pear compote is delicately laced with whole cardamom seeds, and I absolutely love it.  It makes a delicious topping for toast, crispbread, porridge and granola served with filmjölk, yogurt or milk of your choice.  Or you can just eat it with a spoon!  According to Live Lagom:  Balanced Living the Swedish Way by Anna Brones, compotes are a very common way to serve fruit in Sweden.  This one is my take on a pear compote I made in cooking school some years back.   In class we used it as a filling for a gingerbread cobbler, which is something to consider.  The combination of pears and gingerbread is utterly magical.

Roasted Pear Compote with Cardamom, Vanilla and Fresh Ginger

 Makes approximately 12 ounces

 5-6 small to medium-sized Bartlett pears, peeled and cut into ¾ inch cubes

2 tablespoons honey

Seeds from 2 crushed cardamom pods, pods discarded

4-5 thin slices of fresh ginger (no need to peel)

a pinch course salt

½ vanilla bean

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Combine all ingredients except vanilla bean and lemon juice in an 8 or 9 inch square baking dish.
  3. With a small sharp knife, split vanilla bean down one side of the pod.Open up the pod and lay it flat on your cutting board. Using the back of your knife, remove the black seeds from the interior of the pod by scraping from one end of the open pod to the other.  Place seeds and empty pod in the baking dish along with the other ingredients.
  4. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring half way through, or until pears have softened considerably.
  5. Remove the pan from the oven.  Using a spoon, remove and discard the vanilla bean pod and ginger slices.  Mash pears with a potato masher or the back of a fork until they are create a chunky, rustic mash.  Add lemon juice.  Taste the mixture and season with additional lemon juice, salt or honey to taste.  Once the compote has cooled, transfer to a clean jar and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

 

New Potato Smørrebrød with Garlic Aïoli and Crispy Shallots

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A confession….I am not from Sweden, Denmark or Norway.  I am an American with Scandinavian roots.  My grandmother on my Dad’s side was Swedish, my grandmother on my Mom’s side was Norwegian and Danish, and my grandfather was Norwegian.  Growing up here in the United States in the 1970’s and 80’s, my family ate a very typical American diet.  The only time that we really prepared foods that reflected our Scandinavian heritage was during the holidays.  Beginning with lefse (Norwegian potato flatbread) at Thanksgiving and continuing on through Christmas with rommegröt (Norwegian sour cream pudding), pickled herring, stirred lingonberries, Swedish meatballs and pancakes (just to name a few), we managed to pack a lot of Nordic recipes into a short 6 week time frame.  But the rest of the year…not so much.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve wondered about this holiday-centric approach to celebrating one’s ancestry in the kitchen, which I’m sure is not unique to my family.  I began to be curious about what Scandinavians ate on an every day basis, not just at Christmas.  I’ve done a lot of reading, cooking and baking on the subject and I’m hoping to share a bit of what I’ve learned here on the blog.  Know that what I share here in terms of recipes is simply my take on what I’ve read and learned about Nordic cuisine over the last few years and through my experience of growing up in a family with Scandinavian heritage.  I don’t claim to be an expert (I’ve never even travelled to Scandinavia!), but I will share with you the unique ways in which I am inspired by Nordic cuisine in my own kitchen.  And I’m sure I’ll share a family recipe or two along the way!

In my last post, we covered the basics of smørrebrød.  Let’s get down to business with this classic example of the Nordic open face sandwich.  My research suggests that Scandinavians are fond of putting cold potatoes on their sandwiches.  This might sound odd but it is actually quite delicious and a fabulous use for leftover boiled potatoes from last night’s dinner.  Thinly sliced potatoes with a garlicky mayo sauce and crispy shallots that taste like little baby onion rings.  What’s not to love?

Smørrebrød with New Potatoes, Aïoli and Crispy Shallots

Adapted from The Scandi Kitchen by Brontë Aurell and Open Sandwiches by Trine Hahnemann

Serves 2

 4 thin slices dense rye bread, a little over 1/4 inch thick

Butter, preferably salted

A handful or two of baby arugula leaves

4-5 new potatoes

Quick Aïoli, recipe below

Crispy shallots, recipe below

1 Tablespoon chopped chives or dill, and/or microgreens

Salt and freshly ground pepper

  1.  Place new potatoes in cold water.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and continue to cook for 10-15 minutes, until potatoes are tender but not falling apart.  Smaller potatoes will obviously cook more quickly than larger potatoes.  Check doneness by piercing a potato or two with the tip of a sharp knife.  It should slide in and out easily without much resistance.  Drain potatoes and rinse with cold water.  Set aside to cool.  Potatoes can be prepared up to three days in advance.  Store in the refrigerator.
  2. Butter each slice of bread.  Place a layer of baby arugula leaves on top.  Slice new potatoes into thin (1/4 inch thick) slices and arrange artfully over the arugula.  Salt and pepper the potato slices to taste.  Drizzle aïoli over potatoes (I like to place the sauce in the center between the two rows of potato slices) and scatter crispy shallots and herbs and/or microgreens on top.  Serve.

 

Quick Aïoli

Adapted from Bon Appetit magazine

Makes 1/4 cup

1 small garlic clove

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 cup prepared mayonnaise

1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper

Mince garlic clove and let sit in lemon juice for 10 minutes or so to mellow out the raw garlic flavor.  Add mayonnaise and olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Aïoli can be made up three days in advance.  Store in the refrigerator.

 

Crispy Fried Shallots

Adapted from The Scandi Kitchen by Brontë Aurell

Makes approximately 1 cup of shallots

3 medium-size shallots, sliced into thin rings, rings separated from one another

1/4 cup all purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon fine salt

Freshly ground pepper

1 cup canola, peanut or vegetable oil for frying

Course sea salt for sprinkling

  1.  Combine flour, salt and a few grinds of pepper in a large ziploc bag.  Add shallots, seal and toss around until shallots are coated with flour mixture.
  2. Meanwhile, heat oil in a large saucepan until it reaches 280 degrees.  It’s worth using a thermometer here if you have one.  If the oil is too hot, the shallots will burn and if it is too cool they will be soggy.
  3. Remove half of the shallots from the bag, shaking off any excess flour.  Place in pan and fry until golden brown and crispy.  This may take as little as two minutes or as long as five.  Keep your eye on them and look for the visual cues.  Remove from oil using a slotted spoon.  Place on paper towels and allow to drain.  Sprinkle with sea salt and allow them to cool slightly and crisp up.  Repeat with the other half of the shallots.

Shallots can be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator for 5-7 days.  Mine usually stay pretty crisp, but you could warm them in a 200 degree oven to crisp them up if necessary.

The Basics of Smørrebrød

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Roasted Butternut Squash Smørrebrød with Goat Cheese, Pecans and Maple Cayenne Drizzle

“The fastest way to understand the Nordic region’s food culture is to eat an open sandwich topped with butter and hard cheese.”

-Magnus Nilsson, The Nordic Cookbook

The Nordic region’s food culture is largely based on bread.  According to The Nordic Cookbook, before potatoes arrived on the Scandinavian mainland in the early 1800’s, most people ate one to two pounds of bread a day!  It’s no wonder that the open sandwich (smørrebrød in Danish, smørbrød in Norwegian and smörgås in Swedish) became a staple of Nordic cuisine.  The origins of the Nordic open sandwich can be traced back at least as far as the Middle Ages.  At that time it would have been a rather simple affair….probably some kind of fat (butter or animal fat) spread on a dense rye bread with leftover meat or vegetables piled on top.  As fresh ingredients became more available, the open sandwich evolved into something more refined and elegant, particularly in Denmark where smørrebrød is now practically an art form.  There are entire restaurants devoted to the open sandwich in Denmark, and it is even possible to attain the a professional qualification known as, “Open Sandwich Master”.  But not all open sandwiches are fussy restaurant affairs.  Generally speaking, Nordic cuisine has an elegant simplicity to it, and a sandwich made at home might be as basic as a buttered slice of rye bread and a few slices of cheese or last night’s leftovers arranged on top.

Trine Hahnemann outlines a few rules for constructing smørrebrød in her book, Open Sandwiches.  I have included some of them here along with a few of my own to help you put together an open sandwich you can be proud of:

  1.  Barring a few exceptions, Nordic open sandwiches are served on dense rye bread which has been sliced quite thin.  I like my slices just a little over 1/4 inch thick.
  2. If you are using a dense rye, the bread is simply sliced, not toasted.  Sometimes I will do a light toast on mine just to freshen up the bread slightly without causing the exterior to get crispy.
  3. The bread is usually buttered quite liberally with salted butter.  If you don’t usually stock salted butter, you can use unsalted butter and sprinkle a little kosher salt on it after you spread it on the bread.
  4. There is typically one main topping and a combinations of condiments.  A well-designed smørrebrød has a variety of flavors and textures that come together to create a sandwich that is more delicious than the individual components might suggest.
  5. Smørrebrød doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be pleasing to the eye.  That’s part of the fun of the open face sandwich…with no top to disguise what’s inside there is much opportunity for creating something that is as beautiful as it is delicious.
  6. Season as you layer.  If your main ingredient is sliced cold potatoes or hard-boiled egg slices, you are going to want to season that particular layer with salt and pepper before adding the remaining condiments.
  7. Think about your layering, both in terms of visual presentation and what makes sense in terms of the temperature and shape of the main ingredient.  If your topping is warm roast pork, for example, you aren’t going to want to put tender arugula leaves underneath it.  That’s a recipe for soggy greens.  Layer in a way that lets each ingredient shine.
  8. If you really want to get serious about aesthetics, consider placing any sauces that you are using into a squeeze bottle, plastic piping bag or ziploc bag (with a corner of the bag cut off).  This allows you to squeeze the sauce onto the sandwich exactly where you want it. It can be difficult to artfully arrange sauces with just a spoon.
  9. Unless it really doesn’t seem appropriate, always add a shower of something small and green on the very top for garnish.  Chopped fresh herbs, microgreens, sprouts, or watercress are all good choices.
  10.  If you’ve created a lovely smørrebrød piled high with delicious ingredients, don’t try and pick the whole thing up and take a bite.  These sandwiches are usually a knife and fork affair.

Picasso once said, “learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”  Make a classic smørrebrød or two (recipes to follow), but also get into the kitchen and play!  Let your bread be your canvas and get creative.  Anything goes when it comes to designing your own open face sandwiches.

 

Creating a Sense of Sanctuary

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Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

There are no intrinsically sacred objects or experiences; they are made sacred by the special context that we give them.

-Louise Thomsen Brits, The Book of Hygge

Now more than ever we all need a sanctuary, a refuge from the world, a safe place to reflect and restore.  But the word sanctuary implies more than just a safe space or refuge.  It suggests reverence.  Holiness.  A sense of the sacred.  When we think about our homes in the context of creating sanctuary, we see the value of a living space that is simple, comfortable and cared for, a space that is ready to calm and nurture those who enter.  When we bring this sense of sanctuary to the seemingly mundane details of our daily lives, the ordinary has the potential to take on new meaning.  A morning cup of coffee in our favorite mug suddenly becomes a quiet, restorative ritual to start the day.  Our favorite corner of the sofa is transformed into a cozy writing nest to contemplate and dream.  Preparing dinner becomes a sensory meditation.  As we infuse our lives with a new awareness and appreciation for the everyday moments, we create sanctuary for ourselves and those we love by elevating the ordinary into the extraordinary.

The creation of sanctuary is an intentional practice, a willingness to make room for and find the sacred in the everyday.  Here are a few ideas for how to begin creating a sense of sanctuary in your own life:

  1. Make Space.  It can be difficult to cultivate the sacred in the everyday when we are buried in clutter or an over-scheduled calendar.  Clear out and simplify.  Make room in your home and your planner for a more intentional, well-lived life, for what nourishes and sustains you.
  2. Own a few small, well-chosen items that comfort and delight. A warm blanket, a favorite mug, a pen that flows effortlessly across the pages of your journal…sometimes it’s the small luxuries that become talismans of comfort, familiarity and meaning in our daily round.
  3. Slow down. Our lives move at the speed of light.  How many times have you thought to yourself on a Thursday evening, “I can’t believe it’s Friday already tomorrow!  Where did the week go!?”  We can live our whole lives this way if we aren’t paying attention, racing unconsciously through our days, just managing to get by.  This kind of living is simply skimming the surface. We are not immersing ourselves in the richness that is right in front of us.  As a way to counter this pace, practice doing things SLOWLY on purpose.  Take a stroll through the neighborhood.  Not a power walk, but an easy stroll.  Prepare dinner at a leisurely pace.  Linger over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.  Luxuriate in a hot bath rather than take a quick shower.  Take up an activity in which success depends on time and patience, sourdough bread baking, for example.
  4. Unplug. We don’t cultivate the depth and richness of life by staring at a screen.  We need to be wholly available to participate with our environment and the people in it in order to notice and appreciate our everyday experience, at least for a little while each day.  Be gentle with yourself on this one…unplugging from a virtual world and plugging into our real one with all of its messiness and the possibility of boredom isn’t easy.  Start small if you need to by setting aside designated times where you don’t check your phone.  Having a no device time before, during and after dinner is a great place to start.
  5. Engage with your senses. We can come back to the wholeness of the moment, to the beauty of the here and now just by really seeing, smelling, touching, hearing and tasting what is right in front of us.  This is why cooking is such an extraordinary activity for discovering the sacred in the seemingly mundane tasks of daily life.  The smell of garlic sautéing in olive oil, the bright orange flesh of the squash we are cutting into cubes, the softness of a plush Colorado peach in late summer.  Cooking offers so many wonderful opportunities to stop and take in a moment of sensory wonder and appreciation for the everyday gifts that are right in front of us.
  6. Don’t just eat dinner…dine. Find a bit of ceremony in your day where you can.  Light candles at the dinner table, lay down some placemats and cloth napkins and open a bottle of wine.  Not only will you invite a sense of the sacred to your meal, research suggests that gathering around the table at the end of the day is a source of social connection and an important aspect of our physical health.  In his book, How to Make Disease Disappear, Dr. Rangan Chatterjee talks about what life was like when humans existed in hunter-gatherer tribes.  After the sun went down, these early humans shifted their activities and conversation from the work of finding food to telling one another stories around the campfire.  “The researches call this ‘firelight talk.’  It’s a time of calmness, reflection and-perhaps most importantly-connection.”  We are wired to reflect, connect and find meaning in our existence by sharing our stories, the happenings of our day, with those around us.  “In the modern West, the table rather than the campfire is where our connection, or our ‘firelight talk,’ happens.”  Elevate mealtime to a higher plane by realizing that this is where we strengthen our sacred connection to one other….especiallyon an ordinary Wednesday night over meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
  7. Bookend Your Day with Rituals for Reflection. For me this means meditation and journaling.  But it could just be a simple quiet moment with your cup of coffee in the morning before your day begins.  Taking even a few moments before the day gets away from you to quietly center yourself is invaluable.  You will enter the morning in a more intentional, peaceful frame of mind.  In Circle of Stones, author Judith Duerk tells the story of a woman who lights a candle when she first wakes up for a brief ritual of quiet presence:

    “as long as I take time every morning to light a candle to my life, it remains my life.  But if I hurry into work without that small moment of quiet, then I’ve already lost myself, and the day.  The task, for me, is to care, daily, for myself and my life….to love and to nurture, within myself, moment by moment, the quality of quiet presence, quietly being present to my life, which sanctifies it…to live as if the candle is lighted.

    Likewise, take time to assess the day and find gratitude for the moments that touched your soul in some way, especially the small ones.  This is an excellent way to thoughtfully and intentionally shift into the evening hours.

Rest and restore in the sanctuary of everyday moments. Our lives are abundant in the ordinary, and it can be a profound gateway to something greater if we simply shift our perception a little.  The depth and meaning we seek in life is often not found in the big things….the parties, weddings, promotions and extravagant vacations.  Instead, we can find richness in our lives right where we are as we practice taking pleasure in the everyday stuff of life.

Creating Space: A Journaling Exercise

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“Nothingness is the sister of possibility.”

-John O’Donohue

I said to a friend last week that one of the greatest gifts I have given myself in recent years is the ability to recognize and appreciate a sense of internal space.  It is in this space that peace resides, possibilities are born and a sense of gratitude for nothing and everything begins to make itself known.  It is the place where we meet our inner self, and where our authenticity comes.  It is the place from which we are able to fill our own well, from the bottom up.

Journaling is a great way to clear our minds and intentionally cultivate this inner space, beginning with the mind.  This exercise is designed to help you do just that.

The Empty Room

Get out your pen and your journal and find a comfortable place to write.

We are going to do a stream of consciousness writing. This is essentially the process of dumping the contents of your mind onto the paper by simply writing down what comes into your head. Try to keep your pen flowing.  If you can’t think of what to write simply write, “I don’t know what to write” until something else pops in.  If you find yourself repeating thoughts, worries, whatever, just let that be.  Write what it is in your mind at this moment.  Anything and everything.  Don’t censor yourself, just let the thoughts come and record them.  Your thoughts may sound hopeful one moment, and then mean, petty or whiny the next.  It doesn’t matter.  Set your timer for 20 minutes, keep your pen moving and write them down.

When time is up, set your pen down, close your eyes and place your hands on top of your open journal.  Let your breathing slow and just notice what you are feeling.  Notice how it feels to have everything that was in your head down on paper, right beneath your hands.  Let what you have written stay there for now…there is no need to pick it up again, it’s all right there on paper in front of you.  It’s not going anywhere.  For now, just let it all go and enjoy the spaciousness you’ve cultivated in your mind.

Now, in your minds eye, picture an empty room.  It’s a large room with high ceilings and arched windows on all four sides. Slowly begin to walk around the room. Notice the clean, white walls. Notice the way the sunlight streams through the oversized windows.  Listen to the sound of your footsteps on the wood floor as they echo in all of that empty space.  This room is your blank canvas.  It represents your thoughts, your time and your energy.  Right now it is empty.  Spacious. Filled with nothing but possibility.  Sit down on the floor of your room and just breathe for a moment or two, soaking in the deliciousness of all of that spaciousness and freedom.  John O’Donohue says, “Nothingness is the sister of possibility.  It makes an urgent space for that which is new, surprising, and unexpected.”  Let yourself feel the truth of that.  Know that it is up to you to fill or not fill this space as you see fit.  You get to choose what goes in here.  You always have a choice.  This sacred space that represents your thoughts, energy and time is yours and yours alone.  How will you fill it?  What will you put here?  What will you not put here?  What is worthy of occupying this space?  When you are ready, slowly open your eyes.

Return your attention to your journal and read through what you just wrote.  Underline anything that represents something that you want to keep, something that lights you up, speaks to you, feels like it is worthy of occupying space in your room.  If your experience with stream of consciousness writing was more of a letting go and you are not finding much that you want to pick up again, that’s great too.  Don’t pick up anything that doesn’t feel like it belongs in that delicious room filled with light, spaciousness, freedom and possibility.  It can stay as empty as it needs to right now.

Open to a new page in your journal.This blank page represents your empty room, your sacred space.  Write down, possibly in boxes or circles, what you choose to keep. If you aren’t finding much to transfer over ask yourself, what, in an ideal world, would I want to dedicate my time, my energy, my thoughts to?  In an ideal world, what would I want in my sacred space?  Write these here.

Look at what you have chosen and notice how much lighter you feel.  Notice the clarity and focus that comes from letting go of that chatter that doesn’t serve us and deliberately choosing how we will dedicate our thoughts, time and energy.

How to use what you uncovered this week:

*Plan your day from this sacred space:  Annie Dillard famously said,“how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  When you are planning your day or making a to-do list, have your sacred space page in front of you.  Let it be there as a reminder of how you choose to prioritize your time and energy.

*Take inspired action:  If a creative project or larger action item revealed itself to you in the course of the exercise, take at least one baby step in its direction this week.  You may find yourself with more energy and motivation to do so as you have let go of a lot of what was bogging you down and are clearer on where you want to invest yourself.

*Keep writing:  Use one or more of the thoughts or phrases you’ve chosen to put in your sacred space as a jumping off point for more writing.  See what comes up.

*Do it again:  Stream of consciousness writing is always here for you as tool to help you clear your mind and sort and sift through what is there.  Use it whenever you feel overwhelmed, distracted, or uncertain of where to go next.  What goes in your sacred space may shift and change as time goes on.  That’s perfect.  Let it be yours.  Let it evolve.

**Bonus exercise:  As it is on the inside, so it is on the outside.  And vice versa.  As we clear out our inner world, let’s clear out our physical realm to reflect our newfound appreciation of spaciousness and possibility.  Take everything out of at least one space in your home this week. It can be a drawer, a closet, an entire room.  Revel in the beauty of its spaciousness and then only put back what you really want there.