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Jersey Storytellers Project: Carolyn’s Holiday Story

Holiday stories

Carolyn talks about finding the perfect gift at the Jersey Storytellers Project in Asbury Park. Photo credit: Alesha Boyd-Williams

The Jersey Storytellers Project

On Wednesday evening I had the opportunity to participate in a fun, if slightly nerve-racking, event as part of the Storytellers Project. Through this project started by journalist Megan Finnerty, the USA Today Network organizes regular live storytelling evenings in 27 cities across the country in an effort to bring communities together. 

This month's event in Asbury Park, NJ was holiday-themed, and I told a true story where talking about a vibrator wasn't the awkward part. Other local storytellers included a comedian, a writer, a singer-songwriter, and a real-bearded Santa.

Listen to a rehearsal recording or read the written version of my story below, and you can learn more about these events here. Maybe you'll join!

Christmas Morning 1985

It’s early Christmas morning, 1985, and I’m 9 years old. I’m auditing the wrapped presents at the bottom of the tree. I’m single-minded like only a fourth grader with no worldly responsibilities could be. The window closes forever on that kind of focus when you hit fifth grade and become the most responsible kids in the school.

But this morning, my only job is to keep my shit together until I know for sure whether one of these boxes contains my new backpack. Way back in early October, I got my hands on one of those old-school mail order catalogs that eventually got used as kindling to start the Internet.  Flipping through the pages, I fell instantly and totally in love with a solid blue Jansport. It was the most regular backpack you’ve ever seen, made of that kind of awkwardly shiny parachute material that’s supposed to be waterproof but is definitely going to soak up all the dirty melted snow from the bus floor on your first day back at school.

The seven deadly sins

If you Google 1980s vintage Jansport and look for the least special one, that was it.

I have never wanted anything so much in my life.

I’m filled with dissonant emotions. There’s raw desire, bordering on greed. It’s tinged with guilt, because it’s Christmas, and even though I don’t know fractions yet, I can feel that almost half the seven deadly sins are wrapped up in how much I want this backpack.

There’s legit childlike excitement, which, fine.

12 weeks of backpack lust

And then there’s this more complicated thing hovering below the surface. This kind of deep, preemptive sadness, like I’m inoculating myself against the possibility of disappointment. What if I don’t get this object of my every desire? What if tearing out the page from the catalog and stapling it to the Christmas list that had 1. BACKPACK in capital letters at the top wasn’t enough self-advocacy? What if it was enough self-advocacy, but no one cares?

Even at nine, even on Christmas, I am not prone to magical thinking.

I am not that much fun as a child.

To this day, those 12 weeks of backpack lust make up the longest period of time in my whole life. The slow march from Halloween to Christmas is excruciating. It never occurs to me to think of it as a luxury.

Christmas morning 1991

Now it’s midmorning on Christmas, 1991. I’m 15, a sophomore in high school. Harry Potter won’t be written for another six years, but I am basically the prototype of a dementor, sucking the peace, hope, and happiness from the air around me. Nothing is good enough for me, and I hate myself for it, but not as much as I hate everything else. For Christmas I would like a boyfriend, or if I haven’t been nice enough this year to get a boyfriend, then maybe I would like a vibrator. But I don’t write this down on my list. I am not the ideal daughter to buy presents for this year.

My mom decides that maybe I would like a Scherenschnitte. I don’t know whether you know what Scherenschnitte is. It’s not the German word for vibrator, I’ll tell you that. It’s the painstaking craft of cutting designs and scenes from a single sheet of paper. Scherenschnitte in its various forms has been embraced by a wide array of cultures across the globe. I do not embrace the Scherenschnitte.   

How not to accept a gift

Instead, I start to giggle, and the giggle turns into a belly laugh, and I can’t control it. My mom looks a little bit sad, and a little bit angry, and the color drains from her face. I know this isn’t the right reaction to a gift, even a Scherenschnitte, and I hate myself for that, too, but there’s nothing I can do.

Inside that laugh is layer upon layer of the most uncomfortable things in the world. The profound sadness of the wrong gift, the awkwardness of misplaced kindness, which is so much worse, the more the gift-giver cares. The loneliness of being misunderstood. On top of that, my mom is Italian-American, and I’m an Italian-American Virgo, so literally nothing bad that’s happened between us has ever been forgotten. 

There's no German word for that

I’m 15, and I have no idea who I am. It will still be three more years before I go to college and boldly change my name from Cah-rolyn to Ceh-rolyn. What I need from this $20 German paper craft is for someone to show me the way forward while making me think it’s my own idea. And possibly also a ravaging orgasm. I don’t think even the Germans have a word for all that.

But I don’t know that’s what I need. I feel like I need for time to speed up. For the next three years to just go up in flames from the friction of it all, until I can do my own thing.

Carolyn Gratzer Cope Jersey Storytellers Project 2 780 | Umami Girl
Feeling all the things. Photo credit: Alesha Williams-Boyd, Asbury Park Press

Christmas 2010

And it kinda does. Now it’s late in the evening, Christmas 2010. I’m 34, but who cares. I’ve got a great husband and a great house and two great kids, and none of this is news. At 34 I’ve recently decided to start calling myself middle-aged in a vaguely ironic way, so that entering middle age for real will feel more like a slow, controlled glide path and less like waking up one day, looking in the mirror, and thinking, Fuuuuuuck.

Because time goes by fast now.

Our friends have just left. We don’t usually invite friends on Christmas, but I’m trying to fill the hole left by my dad’s recent death.

The family is winding down after a long day, and my sister, who always has the perfect words for everything, says, “That was the best worst Christmas ever.”

A bad habit

And here’s what she means. This Christmas I’m doing one of the things I’ve gotten really good at doing, which is staying very busy making things beautiful and cozy and fun — creating special spaces for other people to inhabit. It’s a nice thing to do, and it’s a thing that a lot of women seem to do, and I’m kind of especially good at it. I’ve been doing it for years. I’ve built a whole business around it.

But I know that part of the reason I’m doing it, is that it’s an elegant way to avoid having to fully inhabit the space of my own feelings.

This has become a bad habit, and I know that too.

Just like when I was nine, and afraid I wouldn’t get that blue backpack, it’s an inoculation against possible disappointment. When you're nine and just learning how to do life, maybe this is fine. But when you’re approaching middle age and time is flying by, it's a kinda sucky way to live.

How to be at peace

When my dad was dying, at only 65, I asked him whether he was angry, or felt cheated, that he hadn’t had more time. He was truly mild-mannered, but to that he answered, “No, Carolyn! I’ve had a great life. I have a wonderful family and I had a great career, and I’ve been very lucky.” At the time I felt a little reprimanded by that answer, like one of the last things he would know about me is that I didn’t really get it.

But I’m glad I asked, because it forced me to try to understand how he could be so at peace. I never got to confirm this with him, but I think a big part of it was that he figured out early on how to really use the time he had, and how to fully inhabit his own life, on his own terms

I needed to get better at that.

So how'd it go?

So how’d it go, Carolyn? Carolyn.

Well, I did get that blue backpack. And I wish I could say that it taught me some kind of important lesson about materialism. But god, I loved that thing. Looking back, it was clearly my first real boyfriend.

I still haven’t embraced Scherenschnitte. I still haven’t quite forgiven myself for ungracious way I handled that gift. And maybe not surprisingly, it took quite a while after that to find my second real boyfriend.

And I still miss my dad.

The perfect gift

But.

When I turned 40 a couple years ago, I decided it was time to start doing a better job figuring out the balance between feeling and functioning. I think one of the hardest things about being a person, or at least an Italian-American Virgo, is keeping yourself open to genuine excitement and real, unmitigated feelings, without letting them wreck you. Embracing the process without getting too attached to the outcome. Going after the backpack like your life depends on it, but knowing you’ll be okay if you don’t get it.

And the thing I know for sure now is that there’s a simple, if not always easy, way of avoiding that terrible cocktail of Scherenschnitte feelings caused by giving or receiving the wrong gift. And it’s this. Whenever possible, give your time. Show up for others and for yourself. Once we’re over 15, there’s not a lot we can do to slow time down, but is one thing we can do, and it’s to share it.

Stovetop Potpourri: An easy, affordable homemade gift

Our friend Rachel is the actual most thoughtful. She's also crafty AF, and this excellent combination of traits results in some top-notch homemade gifts. From ghost pepper hot sauce to homemade bitters to this stovetop potpourri, we can't get enough. 

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Keeping a little stash of dried orange rind on hand makes this gift a five-minute endeavor.

Holiday memories

The other day, Cope had this sort of casual but blazing insight about the traditions that parents establish for their kids. He was talking about having made gingerbread houses as a child, and how that was such a big part of his memory of the holidays. The thing is, he's pretty sure it only happened once.

I love the idea that kids sculpt their life stories out of these single, salient moments that parents might not even remember. Sometimes we try so hard to shape the way our kids see the world. Engaging in that process has got to be a good thing, but it's fun and kind of freeing to realize that we're not so much in control of the result of those efforts as we might think we are.

Stovetop potpourri

Well. Simmering stovetop potpourri on Boxing Day became that exact kind of instant classic in our household last year.

Our friend Rachel gave us this beautiful little jar filled with dried orange rinds, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cranberries, and pine. I poured it into a little pot with some water and simmered it all day long. The house smelled amazing, and I could tell even as it was happening that my Pavlovian brain would forever associate that scent with the cozy relaxation of the day after Christmas.

So far it's only happened once, but I plan to make it a thing forevermore. The kids can take it or leave it, and that's fine with me.

Stovetop Potpourri 780 | Umami Girl-2

An easy and affordable homemade gift

We absolutely love the idea that you can share this set of cozy feelings with everyone you know for about three dollars, and without any special skills other than your general awesomeness. Stovetop potpourri packaged into little jelly jars and adorned with a pretty label and a jingle bell makes a great gift for friends, teachers, family members, delivery folks, and more. 

Protips for stovetop potpourri (a.k.a. slow cooker potpourri)

Spoiler alert: Protip #1 is that you can totally simmer this stovetop potpourri in a slow cooker on low with the lid off. That way you won't have to watch it too carefully.

Protip #2 is this: If you're simmering potpourri on the actual stovetop, be sure to keep an eye on it and top it up with water before it gets too low. 

Protip #3: This recipe includes fresh cranberries and pine sprigs as an optional element for their color and festive vibe. If you include them, be sure to let your gift recipients know that they should simmer the potpourri within a few weeks. If you leave them out, these little jars will hold for many months.

Protip #4: If you aren't gifting and just want to make your own house smell like a dream come true, you can totally dispense with the orange rind drying process and just simmer a little pot of this stovetop potpourri straight up.

Stovetop Potpourri in Jelly Jars

Our friend Rachel gave us a little jar of this stovetop potpourri. On Boxing Day, when the work and chaos of producing Christmas for everyone were finally done, we simmered it all day long. It's such a lovely ritual, and so easy to share. This recipe makes one gift, but you can easily scale it. Rachel dries orange rinds regularly throughout the year to keep a supply on hand.
Prep Time 15 minutes
Active Time 15 minutes
Additional Time 10 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes
Difficulty Easy
Estimated Cost $3
Serves 1

Materials

Directions

To dry the orange rind

  1. Slice orange rinds into 1/2-inch-wide strips. You can do this over the course of several days if you like and leave rinds to air dry while you accumulate enough to dry in the oven.
  2. Preheat oven to 300°F with a rack in the center.
  3. Arrange rinds in a single layer on a baking sheet.
  4. Bake for about 15 minutes, until completely dried.
  5. Let cool completely before proceeding.

To assemble the stovetop potpourri gift

  1. Place a handful of dried orange rind into a jelly jar.
  2. Add cinnamon sticks, cloves, cranberries, and pine sprig, and close jar.
  3. Print labels using included labels template. If using Avery 22818 labels, be sure to print at 100% size (uncheck "fit to page"). It's a very good idea to test your printer settings on a plain piece of paper before printing on labels.
  4. Stick label onto jar, or cut out tag, hole punch, and thread with twine.
  5. Thread jingle bell onto twine, wrap twine around jar lid a few times, and tie.

Notes

It's nice to add cranberries and pine since they're colorful and festive, but since these ingredients are fresh instead of dried, they will shorten the shelf life of the jar contents. If you include them, just mention to your gift recipients that they should use the potpourri within a few weeks. Alternatively, you could use dried cranberries and pine or rosemary.

You can also print the printable labels template onto regular kraft paper to use as hanging tags. Cut out circles, hole punch, and tie with twine.

5 Easy Guest Bedroom Ideas for the Holidays

No one has a lot of extra time around the holidays. Luckily, making your overnight guests feel loved and just the right amount pampered doesn't have to take a lot of time and effort. These five bite-sized guest bedroom ideas will go a long way toward keeping your guests happy. And the best part is, you can do them all in advance.

1. Swap in a few festive accessories

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It's great to have a few items (like the tall blue vase pictured here) that go with both your holiday look and your everyday look. 

A few inexpensive accessories like throw pillows, LED string lights, and votive candle holders are all you need to make your guest bedroom feel festive. You don't have to spend a lot, and you can pull out these items year after year. 

Here's what we have:

2. Be thoughtful about lighting

BEDSIDE LAMPS

Even if your room has good overhead lighting, it really pays to have a couple of lamps flanking the bed. That way guests can tuck in and read before drifting off without getting up to flick off the light switch.

These days you don't have to spend a lot to find great-looking lamps. Target is our favorite place to find whimsical bedside lamps, often for under $20.

WHEN GUESTS ARRIVE 

A super-easy way to give guests a cozy first impression is to set the mood with good lighting before they arrive. Turn off overhead lights, and turn on bedside lamps and those LED string lights. It's the easiest way to create a little bit of magic.

3. Make like a French lady and layer, layer, layer

We've never met two people with the same temperature preferences, and being too cold or too hot at night is a great way to interfere with sleep. In wintertime, we like to start with a set of cozy flannel sheets, which you can make more or less holiday-themed to suit your preference. Flannel doesn't need a high thread count or a high price to feel good.

We also like to adorn the bottom of the bed with a throw blanket or two on top of the regular bedding. These can be smaller than the size of your guest bed, since often only one person will want to use them.  

Depending on your living space and climate, you may also want to offer guests a space heater. This space heater is our longtime favorite, super-effective, affordable, and amazingly small option. 

4. Don't forget about books 

Nothing makes a house feel more like home than a great book collection. Place a small stack of your favorite books from different genres in the guest room. This little touch doubles as something for your guests to do and a chance for them to get a little voyeuristic peek into your inner life. You know, if they're into that kind of thing. 🙂 Find some of our perennial favorites here.

5. Spend five minutes thinking about your guests' individual needs

EMOTIONAL PREFERENCES // NEEDS

Did you read that popular NYTimes article a while back that said the question you should ask on all first dates is, "In what ways are you crazy?"

We've all got our ways of being special, and a little bit of thought about what your individual guests might want or need can go a long way. This may seem like unnecessary advice, but the holidays can be such a busy time that you really have to take a conscious moment here and there to check in.

Fierce independent streak? Maybe leave a house key on the dresser. Recent major life change? How about a teddy bear on the bed.

BONUS

Having taken a moment to focus on your particular guests ahead of time will only enhance the fun and connection you have with them once they arrive.

And hey, if this is the way in which you're crazy, it could be worse.

Talk to you soon. xx

Carolyn 

Guest bedroom photos in this post were taken by the lovely Shilpa Iyer for Umami Girl

In the studio with: Louise Goffin

Tip

Grab a copy of Louise Goffin's beautiful new album All These Hellos at your earliest convenience. You'll be glad.

I recently had the privilege of traveling to Havana with a small group of totally rad women. Among them: singer-songwriter Louise Goffin, whose new album All These Hellos dropped just in time to add it to your holiday wish list // December playlist.

Louise was so much fun to get to know over the few days we spent together in Cuba. She's curious and thoughtful, funny as hell, and fiercely but considerately independent. All of those characteristics shine through on the tracks of All These Hellos.

(Sidenote: You'll find all sorts of beautifully lit, curated photos and videos of Louise on the web, but the image above is straight from my iPhone X in the back of a taxi on the way to the airport. That's her redeye-ready look. Louise sparkles like this all the time.) 

All These Hellos

This album is Louise's ninth overall and fifth released through her own indie label Majority of One. It's replete with celebrity appearances, from Rufus Wainwright and Chris Difford (founding member of Squeeze) on vocals to Benmont Tench (founding member of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) on piano and mellotron, among many. 

That's all well and good and no doubt significantly improves my personal score in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but it's not what you'll notice most about this album.

All These Hellos Louise Goffin 780 | Umami Girl

Louise Goffin's haunting, timeless tunes

What you'll notice most is that while these haunting tunes and lyrics clearly draw from decades of experience and influence, they sound modern and of-the-moment without being trendy. These songs transcend genre (Is it pop? Is it rock? Doesn't matter — it's beautiful) and coalesce around universal themes like love, optimism, and intimacy.

You'll love some of the songs immediately, and others will become your favorites over time. 

Five questions for Louise Goffin

We caught up with Louise to learn about her musical and entrepreneurial influences, advice for songwriters, and upcoming projects.

All These Hellos is the fifth album you've released independently on your label Majority of One. Does that approach give you more freedom as a performer and songwriter?

Absolutely. I had so much I wanted to do and I’ve never been good at waiting for others to give me permission to shine.

I’d rather get the music out and let people find it than sit on the other side of a desk praying one person gets it. The world has changed so much with streaming. Now literally anybody can get their music out.

John Lennon said that he and Paul McCartney wanted to be "the Goffin-King of England." I can't imagine a more ringing endorsement of the work your mom (Carole King) and dad (Gerry Goffin) did as songwriters. I'm sure you've learned many lessons from your parents about making music, but is there one in particular that stands out?

Economy is a big one. Everything matters, so only put in what tells the story, sings well, and has authenticity. A strong melody and lyric transcends just about everything else. Even eras.

If you could give an aspiring songwriter one piece of advice, what would it be?

If you write songs you like to be around, they’ll take care of you. If you write songs you don’t like hanging out with, the good ones won’t know where to find you.

How did you and Paul Zollo get started with your podcast The Great Song Adventure? Are there any favorite or memorable interviews that you've done?

The podcast is so good! I was a fan of Paul’s book, “Songwriters on Songwriting” years earlier. I owned it and I just loved that it existed! I had a copy in my London flat when I was refining my own songwriting. When I was teaching a songwriting Masterclass a year ago at Village Recording Studios, I reached out and asked if he’d like to come in as a special guest and allow students to talk to him.

Paul’s a wonderful songwriter himself and part of the reason so many revered iconic songwriters opened up to him in such a relaxed way was because he understood songwriting, and had respect for the craft of their work. He knew the chords to their songs and keys they wrote in. They all must’ve just known “he’s cool, he’s one of us”.

I asked him to come and he did. At the end of the day when everyone had gone home and I was carrying the last few boxes to my car, one the volunteers who helped me said “you should do a podcast”.

It had never occurred to me to do a podcast. I thought about it and called Paul and asked if he would want to do one together. We met over breakfast and boom! We had a name, a logo, and Van Dyke Parks was our first interview together. We have so many that haven’t even come out yet. We interviewed Mike Stoller (of Leiber & Stoller) who was telling stories about being in the studio with Elvis Presley!

Paul recorded all his historic interviews on cassette for print, and I was beyond excited that he wanted to include these archives in our show. We do most interviews together, but there are archives that he did long ago and recently I had opportunities when I traveled to interview people where he couldn’t be there. But we always present the interviews together and bookend the show with us talking and interacting. It’s a lot of work putting the episodes together but I love it, and I feel it’s creating a great place for music lovers and songwriters to get the inside baseball on how these songwriters think when they’re writing and recording.

The other thing I love about it is that artists typically have no time to take in what other people are doing. With the podcast I have the opportunity to turn my attention to what other artists are doing and put the focus on them.

Besides this new album, what other exciting things do you have in the works for the near future?

Another few albums to release. Songwriting retreats. Writing. Filmmaking. And when I have the time, I have a few amazing gourmet vegan recipes up my sleeve.

Thanks, Louise!

Check out All These Hellos on your favorite platform here, and connect with Louise on Instagram.

P.S. See if you can spy my own hello here

Holiday Gift Guide: Best Gifts for Your Favorite Yogis

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You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to do yoga, but a little comfort never stopped anyone from showing up.
Got a special yogi in your life? These are a few of my favorite things…to take to yoga class and help replenish afterward.

Gifts for your favorite yogis