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The Freedom to Choose

The holidays always prove to be a busy season, and this year is no exception thus far. After returning from our river cruise in Europe, I was sick for more than a week. Then we traveled to Indy for Thanksgiving, and I got to enjoy a week-long visit with my family. I came back home feeling well-fed, rested, energized, and ready to work.

Unfortunately, while I was away, I came to an unsettling realization about my current work-in-progress: I had to start over. Yes, all the way over. 

Writing the project had been challenging, more so than I expected, especially the further that I went into the story. While I was away, I realized the problem: my main character was too far removed from the action of the story. My current project is a love letter of sorts to Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files, but I wrote my own main character to be a reporter--not a magician, like Harry Dresden. As a result, the pace felt slow, and I found it difficult to get my heroine believably engaged in the action of the story. 

Reluctantly, I sat down on Tuesday afternoon and made a pros/cons list about starting over. The pro side won overwhelmingly, and I started a draft of a new Chapter 1. Fortunately, the writing has been quick and smooth as a result, and I seem to have accurately identified the problem. But I had to step back and make that decision in order to move forward.

Working from home and being my own boss creates a stream of decisions that I have to make, choices that guide my day, and determine the fruit of my efforts:

When my alarm goes off at 6:20 AM and I technically have no appointments to be up for, will I dismiss the alarm, or get my butt out of bed on time? 

When I do eventually get my butt out of bed, how will I start my day? Will I immediately check the news, which almost always puts my in a sour mood? Will I make myself a hot mug of tea, eat a good breakfast, and do a little morning yoga to wake up my body and mind gently? 

Will I prioritize time with God and the Word so that I am firmly planted in the truth of the gospel, and my identity as a daughter of the King? Or will I rush into my to-do list, frantically trying to tick as many boxes as I can before I have to be in the writing chair at 1:30 PM? 

When I get moving, will I let the dirty dishes, dusty floors, errands, or home improvement projects take priority over my own work? Will I choose to value myself professionally, to value the words that I write, or flee to the immediate gratification of more immediately 'productive' activities?

When I set the new window treatments down in the kitchen, break something, strip the screw for the mounting hardware and subsequently cry all over the clean dishes in the right side of the sink, how will I respond? Will I acknowledge the choices that led me to this moment, and the choices I'm actively making in my response? 

Will I step back, breathe, smile in the knowledge of grace and an eternity in heaven, and thank God that I don't have to have a perfect day, a perfect home, or a perfect manuscript?

When I make the wrong choices and do all the wrong items on my list, will I decide to actively redirect my day and get my butt into the writing chair anyway?

Yesterday was a bad day. It was bad all the way through the kitchen incident where I broke a food storage container, and cried on the clean dishes. It took me all the way until 3:35 PM to take a deep breath, and take a hard look at the day I'd just lived out:

I didn't set myself up for success in the morning.
I made some unfortunate choices about how to spend my time, and ran around like a basket case trying to get things done.
I didn't eat enough food, the rookiest move of all. Hangry people are never happy people.
After several spectacular failures, I still decided to pursue another house project involving power tools and balance, in a storm of raging emotions.

But at 3:35 PM, I made a choice to step back and slow down. I put the power tools away and opened my Bible. I focused my sights on heaven, and got an appropriate and accurate perspective on my life. I reminded myself of the magnificent, mysterious blessing of grace. Because God showed me how, I forgave myself.

I chose to have a better day.

 When life gets frustrating or chaotic, it's so easy to sit back, scream at the heavens, and forget how much control we have in our own circumstances. There is freedom in the decisions that we are able to make for ourselves each day. Even if I make those choices imperfectly, I still have the ability to choose. 

The holidays seem like an ideal time of year to remember that. I can choose to focus on the right messages this season. I can choose family and relationship over busy-ness and material junk. I can choose to do my work, even when it feels like I should be doing a million other items on my list instead. 

And I can choose to have a good day. I invite you to do the same, my friends. 

Adventures in Chicago

Holy crap, was this trip overdue! Andrew and I get travel bugs pretty frequently (especially Andrew), and we were itching to get away and explore a new place long before we actually left. Thankfully, Chicago was lovely, and we had several adventures worth noting.

Transportation: Amtrak
In the name of simplicity and foregoing the outrageous parking fees in the city, we took the train from St. Louis to Chicago. In theory, this is a great idea. Somebody else does the driving, while you kick back and watch movies or read or whatever. The El system in Chicago is sufficient enough to get around with a car, so it was a no-brainer.

Next time, I think we'll stick to driving. The train travels ridiculously slowly, stops all the time, and is not even close to comfortable. Seriously, I'm not generally picky about seats, and I was uncomfortable immediately. It's a bad sign when you're wishing for an airplane seat. We also had minor delays in both directions, and did not disembark in pleasant moods. 

Lodging: Airbnb
This was our fourth or fifth experience with Airbnb, and to be honest, it feels a little too hit and miss for my taste. The Gold Coast studio met our needs, but felt a little cramped for two. You may have a completely different opinion, but when I'm on vacation, I want to be away from familiar home adulting like dishes and laundry. It just isn't the same when you've got to clean up after yourself regularly. 

That being said, the studio was super convenient to the El system, and was in a bustling area with plenty of shops and restaurants in walking distance.

Museum Campus: Shedd Aquarium and the Field Museum
On our first full day in the city, we went full-out tourist and visited the museum campus. Our first stop was Shedd Aquarium

Guys, we are total suckers for aquariums. I have no idea what it is...I don't even particularly like ocean life, and have a 100% irrational fear of whales. Granted, there were no (big) whales at Shedd, but it's still not the sort of place I should logically like to spend my time. Perhaps the mystery of an ecosystem we can barely begin to fathom is mesmerizing enough to captivate my attention, anyway. 

Regardless, we had a blast at Shedd! We spent a solid 2.5-3 hours there, including lunch in a cafe. The shark exhibit was particularly impressive, though the aquatic show left a lot to be desired. The aquarium is definitely worth a stop if you're considering it for your next Chicago trip.

After Shedd, we walked over to the Field MuseumThis was Andrew's pick, and admittedly more his niche than mine. The Hall of Gems was shiny and pretty, and the ticketing person let us in to the Tattoo exhibit for free, which was amazing. But overall, I just felt exhausted by the vastness of the place, and weirded out by the taxidermy animals. I think you'll know if you're into this sort of thing just by glancing over the website exhibit descriptions. 

Deep Dish: Lou Malnati's
Okay...pizza is a controversial topic in St. Louis, and I'm guessing it's the same in Chicago. I did a good amount of restaurant research heading into our trip, since Andrew and I are huge foodies. We wanted to get some locally-loved deep dish, and there was a resounding web presence of delight over Lou Malnati's. We had a location in walking distance from our studio, and checked it out that evening. 

HUGE disappointment.

Granted, we have a crap-ton of good pizza in St. Louis: Dewey's, Blackthorn Pub, Pi, PW, Randolfi's, Katie's, just to name a few off the top of my head. But I expected a lot more than the chewy cheese, greasy pepperoni, and dry, flavorless butter crust that we were served. I'm suspicious that this may be more akin to the "native" pizza choice, a la Imo's in St. Louis (which is an abomination and disgrace to all pizza). When we came home a few days later, we immediately ordered takeout from Blackthorn Pub in the deep-dish style just to make ourselves feel better about pizza in general.  

I even took a picture, just for you, so that you could admire Blackthorn's creation. Their sauce is what really makes the pizza (it's got just the right amount of heat), but it's also a double-decker slice: crust, cheese, toppings, crust, cheese, THEN final toppings. If you're ever in St. Louis, check it out. There is no website, and it's the definition of a dive bar. Your pizza will take a solid 45-60 minutes to cook, because they only have one oven, and somebody is likely going to be rude to you. But it is worth every precious minute of your time. 

Fancy Dinner: El Ideas
Food is the love language of our marriage...literally, we bond by eating incredible food. Mid-bite, we'll give each other googly eyes and say, "Damn. I love you and I love eating with you." It's nerdy, but it's us, and we embrace it when we travel.

El Ideas was our fancy dinner choice for this Chicago trip, and it was not an easy decision. There were a lot of other competitors, and quite frankly, this option was hella expensive. But the concept was exactly up our alley: "to make fine dining cuisine and service approachable and fun instead of pretentious and stuffy." That alone would have sold me on this place, as it really is about the full experience for us; fine food just doesn't taste as good if your waiter has his nose in the air and refuses to crack a smile.

Our experience at El Ideas was worth every penny. They really stuck to their mission--the atmosphere was casual and accessible, the kitchen open for conversations with the staff. We even ate our first course without utensils or fingers, literally licking it off the plate as directed by the kitchen staff. What better way to start a meal that you're not supposed to take too seriously?

We sat at the "Front Row" seats in the kitchen, which I probably wouldn't spring for next time, but gave us full access to the kitchen crew for the entirety of the meal. All of the staff members were hilarious, easy-going, and attentive. 

And the food... ohhhhh the food.

Everything was divine. Literally, everything, and that includes the lamb tongue which...I mean, its a cute little lamb's tongue. I shouldn't have been able to swallow that with any sort of happy feelings, but I definitely enjoyed it.

My favorite course was a play on the Wendy's frosty/french fry combo. They made a potato and leek soup with some extra crispy french fry bits mixed in, and then put some liquid-nitrogen-frozen ice cream/whipped cream on the top in a sundae dish. The entire thing smoked when you ate it, but the flavor combination was incredible. I could have eaten ten of those with nothing else and been completely content. 

At the end (following our 2.5 desserts), they offered coffee and tea service in the kitchen, and gave us printed menus to take home as a memento. Andrew and I have had some incredible meals, historically, but this definitely made the Top 3. Check out El Ideas in Chicago if you've got some cash to spare and delight in well-prepared, accessible food. 

Lyric Opera of Chicago: My Fair Lady
Our final evening in Chicago was up in the air until about 2:30 PM on Saturday. We'd entered the Hamilton lottery three times, and lost three times. True to my nature as a romantic, I sincerely believed we'd actually get tickets because we had a whopping 3 opportunities...hahahahha. We didn't, and my soul was a little crushed. 

However, this disappointment led to a spontaneous visit to the Lyric Opera of ChicagoThey offer 50%-off rush tickets the day-of a performance, so we got cheap seats in the second balcony and figured, what the heck? I have worked with Opera Theatre of St. Louis locally on many occasions, and am comfortable with opera as a result, but I'd never seen My Fair Lady on stage before, certainly not produced by an opera company. 

It was a fabulous production! If you've never braved an opera performance before, these "crossover" musical theatre opportunities are a great way to check it out. And honestly, the performances are going to be significantly better at an opera company than they will be at a touring musical theatre house. Be brave! 

The rest of our time in Chicago was spent meandering around various neighborhoods, exploring. That's the way we prefer to experience a new city...but honestly, three days of activity weren't enough at all. We will definitely find ourselves back in the Windy City for future adventures.